In 2007, Destiny (Constance Wu) is the new girl at a strip club frequented by stock brokers who spend a lot and spend often. While she’s not new to stripping, Destiny is unaccustomed to the high-rolling clientele and feels out of place until she gets taken under the wing of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an older, more experienced dancer. Ramona teaches her all her favorite moves; the two team up to make more money and end up forging a deep friendship. Then the market crashes in 2008, the Wall Street customers don’t want to spend money at strip clubs anymore, and everything starts to crumble.
But before that, the movie is a glittering euphoria. The club is filled with extremely beautiful and successful strippers (played by an extremely fun cast of Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo, and Trace Lysette). When the women ready themselves for work, it has the energy of cheerleaders getting ready before a big game, only instead of rooting for football players to score, they’re rooting for each other to make a lot of money.
It’s steeped in mid-aughts consumerism, filled with Juicy Couture track suits and season one of Keeping Up with the Kardashians on TV, and set to a soundtrack that includes Britney Spears’ “Gimme More,” Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls,” and a perfect use of Lorde’s “Royals.” (Plus, an incredible scene of Lopez stripping her heart out to “Criminal” by Fiona Apple.) For a while, the movie is in danger of spending too much time indulging in montages of stripping and shopping and champagne-popping, with no friction to break it up, but it’s all so fun that you don’t really notice.
When it all comes crashing down, Destiny becomes a stay-at-home mom and Ramona gets a job at Old Navy. Fed up with retail, Ramona channels more energy into the club and devises a plan to hunt for rich, married men who she can get drunk enough to spend an unreasonable amount of money. Ramona pulls Destiny back in, along with other strippers from the club (Reinhart and Palmer), and they enter a darker and riskier new era of success, aided by a home-brewed drug concoction they slip their prey. But from this, the women also form a deep bond. They start of telling the men they lure that they’re all sisters, but they end up meaning it for real.
The movie mostly takes places between 2007 and 2014, using Destiny’s interviews with journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) to tell her story. Hustlers is based on real events laid out in a 2015 New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler. It’s only a partially effective device in the movie, as Stiles isn’t given enough lines or personality to make her character useful. Otherwise, the acting is strong, especially from Lopez, who easily gives the best performance (and hoop-wearing) of her career. Wu doesn’t seems fully comfortable playing a stripper, but she’s still worthy of the part. As sidekicks in the scamming scheme, Reinhart (young Brittany Murphy energy) and Palmer are especially fun.
The beauty of Hustlers is that it’s accomplished what so many other films have not, by making women into messy, complicated anti-heroes — something men are afforded constantly — without compromising good storytelling. It’s about beautiful women doing bad things to bad men, but it’s not filled with hollow themes of hashtag empowerment.