To prepare for Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez trained with Cirque du Soleil performer Johanna Sapakie. (Supplied: Roadshow)
Joker offers a realistic depiction of violence and alienation that feels relevant and unsettling
Janet Jackson’s 1986 album Control, her third, opens with a declaration of independence. “This is a story about control,” she intones coolly over a synth lead. “My control.”
Its release marked a turning point in Jackson’s life: no longer managed by her domineering father, no longer married, and armed with an edgy and percussive new sound, Control revealed a 20-year-old who had well and truly come into her own.
Little wonder writer-director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) chose the album’s title track to play over the opening scene of Hustlers — her star-studded, diamante-encrusted melodrama about a gang of entrepreneurial strippers doin’ it for themselves in pre-global financial crisis New York City.
And so what if, when the crisis hits, they decide to adopt a business strategy that rivals those of their Wall Street clientele in its downright shadiness.
Based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article of 2015, the film is a banger: sharply written and produced, exhilarating, and a little cheesy, but knowingly so.
Part of the fun derives from the fact that it’s a period piece (albeit one bathed in very contemporary bisexual lighting), nostalgic for the now-tacky fashions and music of the mid-to-late 00s; the Von Dutch and Juicy Couture and Sean Kingston are potent blasts from the recent past.
The story unfolds largely through the eyes of “new girl” Destiny, played by diva on the rise Constance Wu, as she tells it to Elizabeth, a Brown-educated journalist modelled on Pressler (Julia Stiles), years after the fact.
“This time, I’m gonna do it my way,” asserts Janet Jackson, as Destiny surveys the bustling dressing room in the mirror — all fluorescent-lit flesh and spangles and spandex — readying herself for her first night of work in a Manhattan club.
She knows that she’s a little out of her depth in her new environment, but is determined to master it — not totally unlike Rachel Chu, the plucky young economics professor Wu played in Crazy Rich Asians.
Where Rachel’s end goal was to get married, however, Destiny just wants to make that money, because money affords her independence — that is, (say it with me) control — plus a jumbo-sized designer handbag or two.
She therefore wastes no time in seeking out the tutelage of seasoned entertainer Ramona — played by Jennifer Lopez, who’s in remarkably fine form here, in terms of both her performance and her toned physique.
There’s talk that Lopez will receive an Oscar nomination for her turn as Ramona. (Supplied: Roadshow)
Ramona might be a little older than the other girls, but her ability to work a room is unparalleled — as is amply demonstrated in her standout first scene, being a wildly sensual pole dance set to Fiona Apple’s 1996 smooth and sleazy alt-rock hit Criminal.
(Apple once said that the song was about “feeling bad about getting something so easily by using your sexuality”. I don’t think Ramona has ever felt bad about that.)
It’s perhaps the meatiest role Lopez has been given in the two decades since she first made a name for herself in the biopic Selena, and certainly the fiercest.
As Ramona, Lopez puts on a fantastic show — one that’s likely to revitalize a film career largely made up of pap (remember last year’s J-Lo vehicle Second Act? I didn’t think so). And, as with Matthew McConaughey’s own turn as a veteran stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike back in 2012, there’s even talk of an Oscar nomination.
For Scafaria, casting for diversity of race, bodies and experience was crucial. (Supplied: Roadshow)
Scafaria further populates the club with larger-than-life personalities including Lizzo and Cardi B, who radiate triple-X factor, delivering performances that seem so effortless as to barely qualify as acting (after watching Hustlers, no-one would be surprised to learn that Cardi B actually has worked as a stripper).
The normally boisterous dressing room gets considerably less so, however, come September 2008, as the global financial crisis enters a critical stage and New York’s nervous monied men cut back on their weekly stripper expenditure.
With a baby daughter to support and even low-level retail jobs out of reach, Destiny doesn’t need too much convincing when Ramona proposes a little “side hustle”: get men to simply give up their credit card details by slipping MDMA and ketamine into their drinks. No stripping required.
“Everybody’s had to get creative,” Ramona assures Destiny. “We gotta start thinking like the Wall Street guys.”
Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article described the women as “modern Robin Hoods”. (Supplied: Roadshow)
The pair recruit Mercedes and Annabelle, sweet-talking, well-heeled girls from the club (played by Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart respectively), and the newly-minted quartet of criminals start raking in hundreds of thousands — their successes making them more and more reckless.
“I kept thinking there was some magic number,” Destiny tells Elizabeth, by way of explaining why she couldn’t walk away.
Rather than uncritically promoting some G-string theory of “girl power”, Hustlers asks to be understood as the complement of Wolf of Wall Street and other such tales of corporate corruption.
If Scafaria (like Wolf of Wall Street director Martin Scorsese) revels in depicting the materialistic excesses of her characters, she doesn’t exactly endorse them — always circling back to the destructive, self-perpetuating nature of greed, itself a side effect of the precarity that circumscribes life under capitalism.
Hustlers is in cinemas from July 10.