With the body and stamina of a peak-performance dancer, Hollywood movie star charisma and the will to overcome any obstacle in her path, Jennifer Lopez is a highly underrated talent. But that talent is commandingly on display in her latest film, Hustlers.
By my estimation, her best acting performance was in Steven Soderbergh’s comedic crime drama Out of Sight, starring opposite George Clooney at his dreamiest. Part of what made Clooney as a career criminal so damned sexy in that film was his sensual interplay with Lopez, a fiercely dedicated U.S. Marshal with a thing for bad boys. I have two Lopez guilty pleasures — the first is Enough, where she plays an abused woman who finally builds herself up and fights back to save herself and her young daughter, followed closely by The Wedding Planner, her 2001 deliriously fluffy rom-com with Matthew McConaughey. I’ll watch them anytime they pop up on cable on a Saturday afternoon and she’s the primary reason why.
That level of watchability defines the opening sequence in Hustlers, which I caught at the Toronto International Film Festival, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). In that scene, Lopez’s character is unveiled.
Constance Wu, playing a relative newbie in the seedy underworld of strip clubs is our stand-in, strutting through a club with fake steel in her stride. But when she turns to the stage and catches sight of the dancer working the pole, she’s transfixed. And so are we.
Ramona (Lopez) is a goddess, alone on that pedestal, mostly unaware of the adoring eyes on her. When she deigns to pay attention to the men out there, Ramona lets us know that she’s in control; she’s the one being worshipped and when the dance is over, she scoops up the cash and prowls off like a panther after the hunt.
Wu’s Destiny girl-crushes hard over Ramona, which begins a relationship that underlines the narrative.
On the surface, Hustlers is about the evolution of a criminal enterprise. Female strip club employees — which include Rapper and former stripper Cardi B and Pop superstar Lizzo — hit hard by the economic downturn in 2008 (when their Wall Street clients scaled back on their lavish bad-boy parties) figure out new ways to suck money from a wellspring that hasn’t quite run dry.
These women, like Destiny and Ramona, were single mothers doing the only thing they knew how to provide for their families and to maintain a sense of independence (or interdependence, since they relied on each other over men).
Ramona was the kingpin of the scheme. She was the best dancer, the one who knew how to tease in just the right way to get what she wanted without surrendering to the whims of clients. She had the plucky hustle needed to adapt, and the heart and innate leadership qualities (like loyalty) to inspire others to join her.
In Ramona, Lopez has found a role that feels like a summation of her onscreen career as well as her life outside film.
Let’s not forget, Lopez kicked things off in the early 1990s as one of the Fly Girls on Keenen Ivory Wayans’ sketch comedy series In Living Color before transitioning to music videos (Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes”) and then making her own music and landing acting parts.
Each achievement is a testament to her talent and killer resolve.
When we watch Lopez saunter through the frames in Hustlers, we’re cataloguing a career, a life in the public sphere that is a whole and living thing. She, like every one of her characters, is the result of hard work, beauty and a never-say-die spirit.
In Ramona, we don’t get the sense that her private life had the same dark roots as say Lopez’s character in Enough, but we understand that somewhere in Ramona, there is the willingness to punch and gouge to survive.
The romantic side of Ramona isn’t dependent upon a man; she’s far happier standing by Destiny and the girls in this crew, her new Fly Girls. That’s what makes Lopez the hustler that she is. Simply the best. (In theaters) (R) Grade: A