[Screen It]


(2019) (Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu) (R)

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Drama: A number of strip club dancers band together to steal money from men.
Destiny (CONSTANCE WU) is the new exotic dancer at Manhattan's Moves, a high-end strip joint that caters to the full spectrum of Wall Street investors who are flush with cash in 2007. It's not long before veteran dancer Ramona (JENNIFER LOPEZ) takes Destiny under her wing, teaches her the tricks of the trade, and makes money alongside her. But then the economic recession hits in 2008, Destiny ends up having a baby, and she and Ramona drift apart.

A few years later and desperate for work, Destiny returns to Moves only to find the place no longer the cash machine it once was. But she runs into Ramona who's still making money privately entertaining men alongside fellow dancers Mercedes (KEKE PALMER) and Annabelle (LILI REINHART). With experience that drunk or high men will spend exorbitant amounts of cash on them, Ramona proposes that they be proactive in such regards and it's not long before the four women -- eventually joined by a few others such as coke-head Dawn (MADELINE BREWER) -- are spiking various men's drinks with ecstasy and then maxing out their credit cards while they're impaired.

In the aftermath of that criminal activity, Destiny ends up being interviewed by a reporter, Elizabeth (JULIE STILES), who's doing a story on the women and their ploy to take control of their own lives and the lecherous behavior of men.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
They say that the five basic human needs are air, water, food, shelter and sleep just to survive. While the latter isn't often touched on in stories of human survival, the rest certainly are and they are highly effective motivators of behavior.

There's a wide array of needs that come in below those, but many of them can be nearly as powerful in dictating how people act. I'd argue that among those, sex is obviously up there (after all, the existence of the human race sort of depends on that), but so is the desire for power and money.

The pursuit of all three can make people do stupid and sometimes illegal things, and that's put on full display in the movie "Hustlers." Based on Jessica Pressler's 2015 New York magazine article "The Hustlers at Scores," the film begins with that trifecta already in play.

At a Manhattan gentlemen's club known as Moves, we see various strippers/exotic dancers flaunting their physical goods for the jollies of rich men who show their power over them by tossing money and stuffing bills into the women's g-strings, essentially buying and thus controlling such entertainment.

And the best there is Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran who, despite being older than most of her cohorts, has no problem shaking and gyrating her "money makers" so expertly that she literally makes it rain money. That draws the attention of the new girl at the club, Destiny (Constance Wu), who Ramona figuratively and literally takes under her wing (or in this case, mink stole as she sits atop the roof in next to nothing, legs spread in her heels and smoking a cigarette).

Times are good at the club, what with it being favorably located in 2007 Manhattan with the full gamut of male Wall Street investors wanting to make use of and flaunt their market wealth. But just as Destiny is getting good, the recession hits, she has a baby, and life gets in the way of her dancing days.

Needing to fulfill the basic human needs, however, she returns to the club looking for work (what with "stripper" not really being a door opener on her resume) and runs into her old friend who's simply taken her man entertainment skills to the local bars. Realizing that drunk and/or high men lose all credit card restraint in such a state of mind and with such provocative company, Ramona convinces Destiny to join her and two other dancers -- Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) -- in proactively drugging their "clients" and maxing out their credit cards.

After all, their "but you had a good time" and "are you really going to draw attention to your behavior" defense seems foolproof, and indeed the women start making so much money that they need to bring in some second-string players to fulfill the needs of their business.

Of course, anyone who's seen such a tale knows good fortune -- especially when it stems from crime -- can't last forever and thus where things are likely headed. And we're repeatedly given teases of that via scenes where Destiny is interviewed by a reporter (Julia Stiles playing a version of Pressler) doing a story on the woman, their ploy, and what eventually made their house of living large collapse.

While nothing we haven't seen before, writer/director Lorene Scafaria (who made her debut with my top pick for 2012, "Seeking a Friend For the End of the World") makes the characters and their story approachable enough that we're engaged to the point of wanting to see how things play out over the course of the 110-minute runtime. And while Wu is good as the protagonist who gets caught up in the high life before eventually regaining her moral conscience, it's Lopez who steals the show (that is, when Reinhart's character isn't losing her lunch in a running gag about having a nervous stomach).

Back in 1997 and '98, J-Lo proved her acting chops with stellar back to back performances in "Selena" and "Out of Sight," but then sort of lost her way among various rom-coms, thrillers and such. She returns to form here, and while I would have liked to have had a deeper dive into her character and what makes her tick, the actress knocks the performance out of the park.

Likewise, greater exploration of the other central characters would have benefitted the effort, which also holds true for their original motivation and then coming up with their ploy (beyond the obvious of needing and then becoming addicted to money and gaining power over the men who once dictated their lives). I also felt the eventual collapse of their scheme was a bit rushed and the film certainly doesn't match the brilliance of "Boogie Nights" in showing the rise, decadence, and fall of those in the skin trade.

Even so, the performances, character chemistry and occasional comic relief make up for much of that. For those looking for something above and beyond the usual T & A stripper show material, "Hustlers" might just fill that need. Good but not great, the film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 11, 2019 / Posted September 13, 2019

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