What would you do if you had no transferable skills, bills to pay, mouths to feed and you faced one of the largest economic collapses in history? For the women of Hustlers, the answer was simple: target the men who screwed the country and bilk them for everything they’re worth. In the new film, led by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, we finally get a Wolf of Wall Street we can actually root for.
Framed as a retelling of events by Destiny (Wu) in an interview about her relationship with Ramona (Lopez), Hustlers takes us through the beginning of the women’s friendship, the start of their illegal scheme, and the conflicts between them as things get dangerous and sloppy. What you need to know about Hustlers is that it is a heist movie. But it’s also a movie about sex workers, working class women, family, loyalty, and the obligations of motherhood. Ramona emerges as a den mother of sorts to other women working in the club and goes out of her way to look after them and help them maximize their earnings, a dynamic that continues throughout the entire film.
Minor spoilers ahead.
The women meet at the strip club they both work for when Destiny approaches Ramona about becoming her protégé. In a fun scene early in the film, Ramona walks Destiny through the different tricks and moves she can do on the pole, giving her a lesson on how to best make use of her body. Joined by Cardi B as Diamond—in a small but hilarious and effective role—the women give her tips on what the club’s male clientele prefer, and how to spot the big-monied fish from across the room. Ramona introduces Destiny to the rest of her little crew (primarily Mercedes, played with energy and sass by Keke Palmer) and picks up more strays along the way (Annabelle, played by Lili Reinhart), and together they have the run of the club.
After the financial crash of 2008 leaves all their regular strip club clientele in the poor-house, the women lose touch for a few years, as they all attempt to find ways to survive. When they reunite after Destiny returns to work at the club, Ramona tells her all about the perverse Robin Hood-esque scheme she has concocted. She and her girls steal from the rich and give to themselves, redistributing what they see as stolen wealth from greedy men to the working class women who need it, helped along by a careful dose of ketamine and MDMA. The scheme keeps them all afloat for several years until one poor bloke dares to come forward about their fraud.
If there’s one image that will stay with you after Hustlers, it’s Jennifer Lopez lounging on the roof of a strip club in a bedazzled g-string costume and sky-high heels, bedecked in a chinchilla fur, lazily smoking a cigarette. The moment comes about 15 minutes into the film, just after her character’s introduction—a sultry pole dance to Fiona Apple’s Criminal; a performance that will surely go down as one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history. Taken together, that brief interlude tells you nearly everything you need to know about Lopez’s Ramona. Though she appears here in a supporting role, Lopez commands the entire film. Her presence looms large over the screen, and she’s missed in every scene she isn’t in. She isn’t the lead, but her star power eclipses everything else in the film.
What Hustlers does best is highlight again and again how much work goes into being a stripper. It makes sure to point out how physically strong these women have to be to perform the tricks they do, taut muscles undulating under sparkly lingerie. But the film also tackles the degradation of being used and abused by men who see them as nothing more than a means to an end. Some coerce, others cajole, but none of them recognize them as people with their own interior lives. It makes it easier to root for the women when they begin drugging and stealing from men, a crime that is no less severe simply because their targets may have been the worst kinds of misogynists. The film is stylish, funny, exciting, and endlessly watchable. All the women have memorable turns, and a surprise cameo by Usher is so sincerely enjoyable that you forget the film is primarily set nearly a decade ago. Wu’s performance is more than serviceable, and she brings a believable matter-of-factness to the role, but nothing could escape the overwhelming shadow of J. Lo’s performance. It is a masterpiece.
As fun as the movie is, tonally it’s serious. Hustlers is about what women do to survive, the networks they create to look out for each other, and the lengths they will go to to protect each other. These women face real problems and take real risks, but in the end, it’s as Ramona says: America is a strip club. Some people are tossing money around and some people are doing the dance.
Hustlers hits theaters today, September 13.