Who doesn't love a Robin Hood story? The merry bandit of Nottingham is an especially appealing hero in an age when graft is so commonplace no one bats an eye at any but the most egregious corruption. That's why there could hardly be a better film for the moment than Hustlers, the new movie about strippers at a high-class New York club who stole mountains of cash from a succession of Wall Street suits.
Hustlers is based on the 2015 New York magazine article "The Hustlers at Scores" by Jessica Pressler. The article's subhead says it all: "Here's a modern Robin Hood story for you: a few strippers who stole from (mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men and gave to, well, themselves."
The action starts when Destiny (Constance Wu) lands a new job at a strip club in New York. A high school dropout and the daughter of Cambodian refugees who left her on her grandmother's doorstep, Destiny still lives with her grandmother, who she supports. She's fresh from a smaller club and eager to make some real money in the big leagues, but she lacks the confidence necessary to swim with the sharks. Enter Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez.
- Hustlers is like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid set in a high-class strip club in 2014 — but with J.Lo.
On her first appearance, Lopez commands the room. After her set, Ramona reclines on a rooftop smoking a cigarette in a metallic bathing suit and a giant fur coat. She's joined by a coatless Wu, eager to make a good impression and soak up some stripper pointers. The film revolves around the bond between these two women, which begins when Ramona offers to share her coat with the new hire: "Here, climb in my fur."
Things go well for a while. Ramona shows Destiny the ropes, and the two women make a killing. In a scene where the more experienced performer demonstrates some moves, free from the audience and the flashing strobes, Lopez and Wu tease out the beginnings of a sisterly intimacy. When the two women are in sweats, the striptease becomes a workout, highlighting the grace and athleticism required to pull off the moves. They look like gymnasts. After an especially successful night, a newly confident Destiny struggles to zip up a knee-high boot stuffed with cash. Of course, there wouldn't be a movie if everything didn't eventually go wrong.
The dynamic in the club changes when the Wall Street tycoons don't have the same wealth to throw around. A card announces the 2008 financial crisis, and suddenly the days of boots stuffed with dollar bills are over. The clientele and the performers are more desperate, and managers, announcers, and DJs at the club all still expect a cut. Some dancers relax their values, letting the changed circumstances dictate how far they'll go. Ramona, on the other hand, goes fishing. The ladies — along with Keke Palmer as Mercedes and Lili Reinhart as Annabelle — find big spenders and bring them to the club, where they've negotiated a percentage of the money spent. Eventually, they cut out the club completely, stealing credit card numbers and maxing out the cards. "This game is rigged," Ramona rationalizes. "And it does not reward people who play by the rules."
Both Lopez and Wu hand in impressive performances, and the script gives them juicy roles to sink their teeth into, strong but hurt women fiercely devoted to each other. There's a Breaking Bad moment when they try to tweak the drug cocktail they use to make men more pliable and forgetful, and the fumes put the pair on the kitchen floor. Later, Reinhart gets laughs as the criminal with a nervous stomach. "I don't know why this happens," she says after the third time a close call makes her vomit into her handbag. As sensational as the story is, the acting chops on display are the most dazzling thing on screen.
Hustlers is balanced on a knife edge of moral ambiguity, and much of its success is owed to writer/director Lorene Scafaria, who got her directorial debut with 2012's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. When it gets too easy to cheer on Lopez and Wu, Julia Stiles appears as Elizabeth, a stand-in for reporter Jessica Pressler, to interview a remorseful Destiny and remind the audience that these women did surreptitiously drug and rob a lot of people. Scafaria makes use of every tool at her disposal, using sound design, wardrobe, and soundtrack cues to guide the viewer through the moral minefield.
Crime and punishment aside, there is something undeniably satisfying in seeing a band of self-proclaimed sisters fleecing the Wall Street crowd.