Hustlers, the new strippers-turned-scammers tragicomedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, nurses a nostalgia all its own. Based on a New York magazine story about how the Great Recession inspired a pair of entrepreneurial dancers to concoct a ruthless “Robin Hood” scheme to steal back the money Wall Street plundered from the 99 percent, writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s film looks fondly to the mid-2000s, when stripping, at least for our protagonists, was absurdly lucrative and not-a-little glamorous. The post-2008 ploy that Ramona (Lopez) and Destiny (Wu) hatch—to spike customers’ drinks with a drug cocktail that would leave them incapacitated and their credit cards available to max out—was, just like that economy, never built to last. But what Ramona and Destiny eventually miss most is their friendship. Sometimes the deepest bonds are products of a time and place, too, and are stubbornly irretrievable thereafter.
Yes, I am arguing that the single best thing about Hustlers is the friends these criminals made along the way. It’s no matter that the real-life Ramona and Destiny were, reportedly, not as close as their movie counterparts. (Scafaria’s screenplay is stuffed with countless can’t-make-this-up details straight from the source material, but the closeness of Ramona and Destiny’s relationship appears to be invented.) Lopez and Wu suffuse their scenes with girlish glee as they forge a connection that ultimately underscores their womanly and maternal complexities. An immediate entrant into the pantheon of female friendship movies, Hustlers—a pretty much perfect film—makes plain the hollowness of so many other iterations of girl power in studio projects. You can feel its heart beat.
Ramona and Destiny hit it off immediately on the latter’s second day at a classy Manhattan club, where the older woman entertains the crowd but transfixes the outer borough newcomer with a glittery striptease that is at once wild and utterly in control of the room. (Lopez, who’s deservedly garnering awards buzz for her performance, certainly merits some kind of accolade for those sinewy whips and swerves.) The real set piece—however unshowy it may be—is still to come, a few minutes later, as Ramona schools Destiny on the different ways one can swing around a pole. (There are about 27 more twirling poses than I’d have guessed.) The two women giggle, but it’s the shared appreciation of expertise and striving that undergirds their friendship. They’re not friends who happen to work together; they’re friends because of the work they do together.
The club isn’t free of female competition—in an early scene, a stripper played by Cardi B hilariously yanks an unwitting Destiny away by the hair when the newcomer approaches one of her own patrons. But the film is much more interested in the camaraderie among the dancers, including one played by a flute-playing Lizzo (who could soon have the country’s No. 1 movie and No. 1 song in the same week). Still, sisterhood doesn’t make stripping any less of a job—and an often demeaning one at that. The first half of the film is propelled along by earnest reveals of the mundane occupational hazards of stripping: demanding clients, managers demanding a cut, the wrong kind of six-inch stiletto. “Drain the clock, not the cock,” learns Destiny. The workaday approach to stripping is refreshing, perhaps even empowering, but not even a master technician like Ramona can survive the devastation of the recession on dancing alone. A short stint at Old Navy with a callous employer (Jon Glaser) demonstrates that men who like to humiliate less powerful women aren’t limited to the club.
The populist revenge angle that the original New York magazine article spun (the “Robin Hood” comparison comes straight from its headline) wasn’t quite convincing, and it’s even less persuasive here. The decade-later rage at the Wall Street wolves who tanked the economy is overdue, and with economic indicators suggesting another recession on the way, the film certainly feels grimly timely. But to her credit, Scafaria doesn’t sugarcoat the horror of Ramona and Destiny’s methods, which lead to more than one serious physical injury. An extended sequence showing a Christmas party celebrated with both their co-conspirators (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) as well as their daughters emphasizes how unbothered they are most of the time, even as the more cautious and strategic Destiny begins to question her former mentor’s tactics.
Scafaria, who previously helmed The Meddler and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, displays a masterful control of tone and narrative structure as she lays out a somewhat complicated series of events without a hitch. She employs a framing device in which Destiny tells her story to a reporter (Julia Stiles) some years later, but this well-worn trope—like those of the crime-and-punishment story arc, the shopping montage, and the before-the-fall scene of popping Champagne—not only gets the cobwebs blown off it but polished to a gloss. Meanwhile the painfully period-appropriate fashion and aptly harsh makeup evoke a time that wasn’t too far away but is definitively lost.
I couldn’t tell if Destiny’s spider-leggy eyelash extensions were meant to help illustrate how the character was expected to look or if it was simply a terrible mistake like Wu’s disastrous, blunt-cut wig (which bears little resemblance to the wavy tresses of her real life counterpart). Either way, they distract from Wu’s face in several scenes—though not from the fact that the film worked around her presumably paltry dancing skills. (It’s understandable but unfortunate that the Asian American actress’s extraordinary achievement of starring in two major, well-received, high-earning summer films in as many years is obscured by accusations of diva-ish behavior.) First-billed, Wu plays the de facto protagonist, but Scafaria’s camera is loath to turn away from Lopez, who sheds all her usual stiffness to expose a mama-bear warmth—and bite. After her big dance, Lopez lies on a rooftop in skimpy sequins glinting under a luxuriant pelt. “Climb in my fur,” she purrs to her new friend. Who could resist?