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Front Page - Friday, September 20, 2019

Critic's Corner: Lopez steals the show in ‘Hustlers’

Jennifer Lopez stars as Ramona Vega, a veteran stripper who turns the tables on her wealthy Wall Street clients in “Hustlers,” a crime drama written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. The filmmaker based her script on the true story told in New York Magazine’s 2015 article, “The Hustlers at Scores.”

I begin with Lopez because this is her film – lock, stock and barrel. Scafaria makes this clear when a rookie stripper follows Vega onto the rooftop of a New York City club and sees her reclining under the lights of the city, her luxurious fur splayed out like a royal robe.

Actors often seem like transplants. They might nail the Bronx accent and the tough act, but it’s clearly a performance. But if I’d never seen Lopez in another film, I might have assumed Scafaria had plucked her off the streets of New York, dropped her onto the set and said, “Action!”

I wasn’t expecting a performance this genuine from the star of “Maid in Manhattan,” “The Wedding Planner” and other romantic comedies. Lopez lends authenticity to “Hustlers,” which is often too busy having fun to remember to tell a story.

What’s more, Lopez displays remarkable range in the film. Vega has attitude, grit and sass; she’s also sad, caring and conniving. And Lopez hits every note like a virtuoso.

There are other, lesser-known actors in the film, and they do good work, but none of them make the impression Lopez does. Without her, “Hustlers” would be only a slightly above-average film that wears it influences on its sleeves and has a sketchy destination.

“Hustlers” follows Dorothy, a stripper frustrated by her inability to attract paying customers. Vega takes Dorothy under her wing, teaching her how to identify well-heeled clients and milk them for money.

Dorothy does pretty well for herself until the 2007 recession hits and empties the clubs. In a bid to avoid poverty, Vega comes up with a money-making scheme: locating rich men in bars, getting them drunk, walking them to the club and stealing and maxing out their credit cards.

It’s a surefire way to make money because most men are gullible enough to believe the women are into them and too ashamed or scared to report what happened to the authorities.

“Hustlers” flirts with a number of questions that rise out of this scheme: Is it OK to do bad things to bad people? (There’s only one sympathetic male in the movie, and it’s a bit part.) Does the end justify the means? How far is too far when you’re in survival mode?

Scafaria didn’t answer these questions, perhaps because she was too busy trying to emulate director Martin Scorsese’s gangster movies.

There are too many shots of Vega, Dorothy and other girls marching in determined groups toward marks, partying with clueless clients, sliding credit cards through readers and whooping it up afterward as they enjoy the spoils.

There’s even a “Breaking Bad” scene in which Vega and Dorothy cook up a homemade drug that can knock out their marks and erase their memories.

The music is loud and the editing is tight in these scenes, with lots of fast cuts and whooshes, like Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Scafaria maintains this pace until late in the film, when she shrewdly shifts to a more sluggish camera style that’s suggestive of the weight of Dorothy’s moral dilemma.

But by then, it’s too late for Scafaria to pull anything substantive out of the material, and the film sputters and ends. Even a criminal investigation ultimately has little impact on anyone’s life.

“Hustlers” is ultimately about the friendship between Vega and Dorothy. That’s not much, but it’s something. It’s also easy to get caught up in the film’s energy. Plus, there’s Lopez, who rules the movie. By revealing herself to be a deeply talented actor, she alone makes “Hustlers” worth seeing.