Jennifer Lopez got great early-career notices for playing a singer in Selena, and later her own successful foray into pop music. So it makes a kind of sense that eventually her acting work started resembling that of a popular singer dabbling in movies — an artist with considerable skill and charisma, performing easy crowd-pleasers for her fans. Classics like Out of Sight, which owes so much of its spark to Lopez's tough, terrific performance, were soon outnumbered by the likes of The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, and Monster-in-Law.
To some degree, Lopez's 2000s-era romantic comedies have been reclaimed from the mostly-bad reviews they initially received — or at least they're more fondly remembered by those pleased fans. As criticism becomes less gendered and movies become increasingly blockbuster-scaled, the simpler pleasures of a J-Lo star vehicle are not as easily dismissed as they were in, say, 2005. Lopez even had a revival of sorts with last year's Second Act, which was predicated both on a middle-aged Lopez character grappling with a world that may have passed her by, and on other characters making it clear how savvy, sexy, and physically fit she nonetheless remains.
The new movie Hustlers also depends on Lopez's presence, but it's a far more interesting star text, in part because it's written and directed by the talented Lorene Scafaria. Lopez doesn't play the movie's point-of-view character; that's Destiny (Constance Wu), a woman who turns to exotic dancing to pay her bills. Lopez plays Ramona, a more experienced dancer who shows Destiny the ropes. But Hustlers isn't about strippers reclaiming their autonomy through the power of performance. It's about strippers reclaiming their autonomy through the power of fleecing Wall Street guys with hefty credit lines. When the 2008 financial crisis hits the strip club, Ramona and her gang hatch a plan to lightly drug potential customers, get them to spend enormous sums at the club, and pass off the missing money as the price of a particularly wild, unforgettable-yet-wholly-forgotten night. If the plan sounds familiar, it's because it's based on a true story, chronicled in a fascinating 2015 New York magazine article.
Though it's made with a different, often warmer energy than something like Casino, Scarfaria's story has the broad outlines of a Scorsese-ish crime caper. This places Lopez in a role that in the past would be filled by Robert De Niro or Al Pacino: the charismatic but morally dubious mentor figure. Like the thrillers that put Pacino or De Niro in that position (think Two for the Money, with Lopez's Wedding Planner co-star Matthew McConaughey, or Limitless, with Bradley Cooper), Hustlers takes great advantage of Lopez's on-screen history. In a cast full of big names, she's still the biggest (Cardi B fans surely know J-Lo, but do their moms know Cardi B?).
But her effectiveness as Ramona goes further than her fame, drawing upon multiple stages of her career. Lopez got her start as a dancer, which explains how convincing she is in an early, athletically show-stopping scene where she dances to Fiona Apple's "Criminal." Ramona is also a single mother in pursuit of a better life, like the Lopez character in Maid in Manhattan; street-smart but approachable, like the image she projects in certain hit songs; and a kind of awe-inspiring den mother, a sort of idealized version of the talented, world-famous performer happy to help her acolytes (something Second Act also played with).
It's not just a question of Lopez being well-utilized in Hustlers; she also gives a layered performance, showing Ramona's contradictions without ever making her look like a duplicitous phony. She does care for her crew of stripper-scammers, and she also lets her attention wander when a new "stray," as Destiny says, catches her eye. She cares deeply for her daughter's well-being, yet takes some deeply wrongheaded risks. She's both savvy in her scheming and weirdly naive in her assumption that her luck won't run out. The movie is framed by the New York reporter (Julia Stiles) interviewing Destiny, but toward the end there's a single excerpt from her interview with Ramona. Lopez's mix of bravado, tenderness, and loneliness in this brief scene is heartbreaking.
It's also exhilarating, seeing Lopez show off her range after a series of movies that have disproportionately revolved around marriage, pregnancy, and the occasional stalking (in both Enough and The Boy Next Door). While it's true that romantic comedies aren't always afforded the respect of equally light but less "feminine" genres, Lopez isn't all that interesting as a romantic heroine. Her film career has often felt like a misguided attempt to shoehorn her into Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts roles (isn't Enough just an unofficial Sleeping with the Enemy redo?).
For plenty of fans, it's worked. And while it's hard to make a case for many of the movies Lopez made between Out of Sight and Hustlers, her filmography has built in a series of expectations that her new movie both fulfills (her natural charisma shines) and subverts (the aspirational angle is a bust). Scafaria has smartly recognized that Lopez has accrued enough on-screen experience to magnify both the similarities and differences, so that relatively small gestures — smoking a cigarette in skimpily attired repose, texting from an interrogation room — register as more "iconic" (as the kids say) than they otherwise might. Lopez may not disappear into the role, but Pacino and De Niro rarely do these days, either. Like those actor-star hybrids, she draws your attention, holds it, and offers a reminder of how much more she might still do.
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