At the beginning of “Hustlers,” the opening lines to Janet Jackson’s song “Control” sets the stage: “This is a story about control — my control.”
“Hustlers” is never exactly subtle in its storytelling, but given the nature of the film’s setting and the pure energy of its protagonists, nuance isn’t necessary.
The film, based on a 2015 New York Magazine profile, follows veteran stripper Romana Vega (Jennifer Lopez) and relative newcomer Destiny (Constance Wu) as they react to the 2008 financial crisis by taking matters into their own hands using less than legal methods.
The autonomy that director Lorene Scafaria uses is a mixture of both visually evident financial anxiety and a deeper, more familial connection. Destiny constantly searches for her place in the world, and with it, a maternal figure who may fill the void her own parents created when they abandoned her. She finds herself an idol in Romana — a former model turned stripper — who, in their first interaction, takes Destiny under her wing, granting her space under an oversized fur coat.
As the two form their eventually illegal alliance and add members Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the family metaphors only grow stronger, culminating with an energetically performed Christmas scene, that firmly cements their bond. The film would make an interesting double feature with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” another film about characters on the outskirts of society who search for a new, selected family in an underground environment.
Looking at performances, the true star of “Hustlers” is Jennifer Lopez. In her best film performance since 1998’s “Out of Sight,” Lopez’s Romana steals the movie, owning every frame. While “Out of Sight” played on Lopez’s ability to control situations despite her smaller stature, this film does the exact opposite. Romana towers over Destiny and her customers, constantly emanating a sense of power. As Destiny says at one point in the film, “Romana has never been out of control,” and the audience can sense it in each scene. Lopez appears to be reckoning with her pop stardom, treating every location as a stage and creating the illusion of constant performance. Lopez has made a living off being the most charismatic person in every room for the past 25 years, and in this film, she weaponizes that energy with tremendous results. Wu also manages a good performance despite a slightly more difficult role.
While Lopez can steal every scene she’s in, Wu must maintain a wide-eyed inexperience while playing straight against Lopez’s hyperactive dynamo. Wu has made a career off thankless roles in quality material, but in the film’s more dramatic moments, she lends the weight needed to ground Romana’s antics.
That isn’t to say the film is perfect. At times overzealous in its reach, “Hustlers” isn’t always thematically consistent in its message. The audience is asked to grapple with the criminal nature of the protagonists, yet never without a sense of glorification. While the film does introduces the idea of stakes in the criminal enterprise in the third act, the audience never truly has to reckon with the damage these actions cause. At times, this leads to storytelling that feels oversimplified without any shade of gray for the nameless Wall Street antagonists.
Even with these potential flaws, the film pushes through them with clear-eyed intensity. Whenever there’s a turn toward melodrama or an incorrect tone, the performances reign “Hustlers” back in, grounding its audience in their delightful, Robin Hood-esque reality of excess and American graft. In constant communication with the 2008 financial crisis, Romana and Destiny are often confronting the fact that their clients are the cause of the hardship.
Even though the film’s analysis of American life lacks nuance, the audience sees credibility through the vantage point of these troubled protagonists. As Romana says, “America is a strip club. Everyone has a hustle.” In a film so concerned with wrestling back independence from the Wall Street power brokers who wield it, it’s hard to argue with her.