Much like the strippers in Hustlers — who drugged and financially divested the male clients foolish enough to trust them — so too was Jennifer Lopez robbed of a much-deserved Oscar nomination. But the fact that the Academy snubbed the film Hustlers is bigger than just being a J.Lo fan. Ignoring this movie as one of the best films of 2019 has bigger implications. Here’s why.
Yes, I get it. Joaquin Phoenix gave a masterful if controversial performance in Joker, playing the kind of misunderstood, artistically-tortured, societally-estranged guy we’ve all crossed the street to avoid. The weirdo who just can’t find his path, so he creates his own. I’ve interviewed Phoenix multiple times. He is, in person, a fucking cool dude, smart and outspoken and thoughtful. I’m happy he’s getting his due.
But there’s room for two superstars in the acting categories, and Phoenix’s recognition doesn’t preclude my disappointment that Lopez was left out. Hustlers, if you’ve seen it, is to stripping what Norse mythology is to the Thor movies. It’s tertiary at best. What Hustlers does is break down the 2008 financial crisis more astutely than any glossy article or PhD-festooned book, without ever being pedantic about it.
And the linchpin of the film is Lopez, as cunning, crafty, benevolent (until she’s not) Ramona. One day, Ramona is wearing furs and giving out designer bags as Christmas gifts because of course she can, as the star attraction at a Manhattan strip club. Money is no issue. Money is there to be spent. It’s a means to an end. Until the money is gone, yet one more victim of the financial implosion that brought down banks deemed to big to fail.
What happens when your income disappears, but the bills don’t? When your kid wants stuff that you can’t afford to buy, like food and clothing? When your lack of upward mobility in the traditional workplace is like a flu you can’t shake? When you try to make money the legit and accepted way, only to understand that tenuous childcare and inflexible hourly jobs and shitty bosses don’t make for happy bedfellows.
You do what you have to do, and you better hope you have a Ramona in your life to show you how. When Wall Street implodes and rich white men stop throwing around $100 bills in strip clubs, it’s fringe workers like Ramona who find themselves scrambling. So Lopez’ Ramona cooks up the post-recession plan to drug dupes, run up their credit cards, and then dump the guys before they wake up, counting on the fact that most of them won’t ever admit they got rolled by strippers. But like so many corporate titans, high on her own success, she went too far, didn’t know when to quit, and got busted. Sound familiar?
She’s a dynamo in the movie. And while Constance Wu is cooly canny as Ramona’s pupil, it’s Lopez’ Ramona who is incandescent. She is luminous and ferocious, gentle and fierce, a savvy, deadly serious corporate strategist without a boardroom.
No, Hustlers doesn’t have the burnished, glossy patina of Little Women, a film that was released with awards in mind. Hustlers is dirty and loud and full of nipples. It’s unapologetically aggressive and aggressively unapologetic. And it deserves, at least, to be part of the conversation about great movies of 2019. In a time when everyone is so damn careful about everything they talk about, the rawness of Hustlers is what made it great.
In other words, compared to Hustlers, other movies that made the cut, like Little Women and Joker weirdly have one thing in common: Despite the praise and the controversies, both of those movies are safe by comparison. They’re neat. They’re linear. And they were created with a very specific audience in mind. But Hustlers is a movie for the people, about something that impacted every single person, and the fact that it’s not being celebrated as such is a crying shame.
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