The Martini; the Fireman; the Peter Pan: You will get a thorough tutorial in these moves, and many more, in Hustlers. But the real lessons in Lorene Scafaria’s lucite-heeled drama aim to land a little deeper; behind the lap-dance dazzle, it’s essentially a story about class, friendship, ambition, and the things people do when money and morality meet (or rather, when they don’t).
Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) is a young dancer from Queens who goes by Destiny; Jennifer Lopez is her Bronx-born mentor, Ramona — the kind of ravishing, bikini-clad goddess that men can’t seem to help throwing down half their paychecks for.
First she takes Destiny under her wing, showing her how to work the champagne room, upgrade her taste in handbags and stilettos, and navigate the tricky hierarchy of middlemen, grifters, and high rollers with gold cards to burn. (There are other girls in the mix too, including colorful supporting turns from Cardi B and Lizzo).
Then, when the 2008 financial crash knocks the bottom out of clubs like theirs, Ramona turns to more creative accounting; specifically, by separating men from their credit limits through any means (seduction, distraction, MDMA-roofie cocktails) necessary.
Scafaria’s screenplay, based on a viral 2015 New York magazine profile by Jessica Pressler, goes heavy on the music cues and montages. But Lopez (who seems to hold the center of every scene she’s in) and Wu bring a soulfulness and desperation to their roles that defy easy profiling. Yes, they’re single moms from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the script doesn’t martyr them or offer excuses for the choices they make. What it does, smartly if sometimes a little too neatly, is make them feel real.
The room it leaves for that humanity — and the draw of Lopez’s magnetic presence — gives the movie more than legs; beneath all the chinchilla and body glitter, there’s a smart, beating heart. B+
(Hustlers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, and arrives in wide release Sept. 13.)