We spend a great deal of energy praising the actresses we think of as great—the Meryl Streeps, the Cate Blanchetts, the Julianne Moores. But we don’t always know what to do with the charming ones, the ones who dole out pleasure in the movies we often catch up with months or years after their release, on an airplane flight or curled up on a Friday night alone. In some ways, being charming is harder than being great, or at least more elusive. Acting is a skill, while charm is a quality; you can’t will it into being any more than you can stuff lightning into a jar.
As an actor and overall performer, Jennifer Lopez has always been charming. In Hustlers, she’s also great—as if two translucent hues spontaneously overlapped to make a new color. Directed by Lorene Scafaria and adapted from a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, Hustlers is a semi-comedy about a group of strip-club dancers who find innovative—and in some cases illegal—ways to empty the wallets of clueless, horny Wall Street dudes. The first time we see Lopez’s character, a veteran dancer named Ramona, she’s just taken the stage for her act, a pole dance of such exquisite muscular grace and precision that it could be happening underwater, or on some planet that has written its own laws of gravity. Later, in her off-hours, Ramona will re-create a few of the moves for an eager but insecure young dancer, Destiny (Constance Wu), who has just started working at the club and who’s as much in awe of this seasoned pro as we are. Ramona wraps a lithe leg high up on the pole, one arm flaring out like a swan’s wing. “This one’s the martini!” she says brightly, and though the arrangement doesn’t look anything like a martini, or even the glass you’d pour it into, the sense-memory of vermouth comes on strong. She’s the Martha Graham of the Lucite platform.
As all dancers know, how we move is part of who we are, and Lopez gives her all in Hustlers. The story opens in 2007 New York, before the crash, a time when guys working in finance were rolling in dough and happy to spend some of it looking at women in g-strings. Destiny is the newbie at the club where Ramona has danced for years, and although she’s beautiful and friendly, she can’t quite get into the club’s swing—and she resents having to fork over so many of the dollars she does earn to the club’s various managers and higher-ups. Destiny gravitates toward Ramona: Their first conversation takes place on the club’s roof, where she finds Ramona taking a break, her semi-naked body swaddled in a fur coat as voluminous as a tipi. The two talk for a minute. Ramona tells Destiny that she was a centerfold in ’93, and she’s OK with her job because, as she says with the matter-of-factness of a banker, she’s “just a people person.” Something about Destiny inspires protectiveness in Ramona. She opens her coat and Destiny crawls into its safety and warmth, though it’s Ramona’s flesh-and-blood glamour that’s giving off the real heat.
Circumstances separate the two friends, and Destiny leaves the club life for awhile. By the time she returns, to dancing and to Ramona, the stock market has tanked, a new group of tough, ambitious dancers has moved onto the scene, and the money to be made is meager. Destiny now has a child to support. Ramona is raising a daughter on her own, too, and though she’s still stunning, she knows she’s not getting any younger. With the help of Destiny and two other dancers, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), she devises a scheme: Rather than dancing, the women dress up in their slinkiest, sexiest outfits and go out trawling for guys, getting them drunk on liquor and allure and then bringing them back to the club—management will give them a cut of anything the men spend. “You want them drunk enough to get the credit card but sober enough to sign the check,” Ramona explains, and the team is so good at it that the money starts rolling in. Before long, the women are treating themselves to foxy Louboutins and over-the-top Gucci satchels. Mercedes buys herself an engagement ring (her fiancé is in prison); Annabelle gets her own apartment, complete with a cat. The women use their power over men, and their smarts, to fulfill both needs and desires. And because some—though not all—of the guys they target are jerks, they don’t feel bad about it.
Then Ramona comes up with an enhancement to the women’s MO that’s outright illegal. Destiny doesn’t feel completely comfortable with the plan, but goes along anyway. The figurative runaway limo these women are riding in is headed for a crash. But oh, the ride is glorious! Scafaria (who has made two previous features, The Meddler, from 2015, and the 2012 Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) gets the story’s shifting tones just right. Its view of women who dance to make money is unsentimental and never pitying. This isn’t easy work—grinding away in some gross guy’s lap is how the real money gets made—but there’s some pleasure in it, derived from the way women enjoy the company of other women and often, it seems, appreciate one another’s bodies even more than men do. In the movie’s most rapturous sequence, Usher (playing himself) strides into the club, and the dancers are so excited they all spill onstage at once in all their glitter-dusted glory, celebrating each other as much as the celebrity in their midst. (The corps includes Cardi B and Lizzo, in small but effervescent roles.)
The strip-club environment, with its backstage camaraderie, its subtle and overt jealousies, is a grand stage for a story about two women who bond over their work, only to be driven apart by differing views of how that work should be done. Hustlers is, above all else, a story about a complicated platonic union between two women. Toxic female friendships are a hot topic these days, as if every friendship could fall neatly into either the Healthy category or the Harmful one. Yet even solid friendships between women sometimes contain a drop or two of poison: There’s the harsh or judgmental word that slips out before you know it, the resentment over the great job the other person got. Being a friend doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in total agreement every minute; sometimes it requires drifting away and coming back—or, in the saddest cases, knowing you can never go back.
Wu and Lopez execute this friendship dance with agility and a kind of primal suspicion. Wu—who starred in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians—gives a multi-layered, fine-tuned performance. Destiny is ambitious and smart, but she knows where to draw the line when it comes to taking advantage of other people, and Wu captures all of that with little more than a wary smile. You see how much she has to put up with just to make a buck. In the club, a guy calls out to her, “Hey, Lucy Liu!” The flicker of weary annoyance in her eyes indicates she’s heard it all before; the lack of originality might even be worse than the outright racism.
When Destiny leaves the club, bundled up in a shapelessly warm coat and headed home to her grandmother’s modest house in Queens, she could be any young woman working way too late at her job. This getting-through-life stuff is the real dance, and that’s where Lopez’s Ramona—bold, charismatic, precise and calculating even within the parameters of her seeming recklessness—helps Destiny the most. Lopez has no vanity in this performance; Ramona is essentially out for number one, and Lopez channels her ruthlessness as well as her generosity. But her charm, that quality you can’t teach or fake, is the layer of cream floating above it all.
Lopez has been lovely in some movies people have greatly enjoyed (Maid in Manhattan), but she was also, perhaps, unfairly tarnished by her role in the 2003 Gigli, a movie whose title, at the time, was bandied about by people eager to loudly advertise that they knew a bad movie when they saw it. (It wasn’t that bad.) But in Hustlers, Lopez can fly at last. She’s stunning to look at: Her skin appears to have been buffed with powdered moonbeams. And her voice hasn’t had all of the Bronx tamed out of it: here and there you can still detect a “hey youse guys” curlicue. Ramona has ambitions to design a swimwear line, and she shows Destiny some samples, scraps of unlikely fabrics, like denim, trimmed with little bits and bobs she’s picked up. She holds up one of these strange concoctions and touts its chief design feature: “Epaulettes!” Then she adds, “That’s French for little shoulders.” This is a swimsuit designed to conquer the world. The actress holding it up already has, via the 6 train.