‘Hustlers’: Stripper Crime Drama Is Surprisingly Empowering

The repercussions of the 2008 stock market crash are explored through the eyes of some of the women who were hit hardest, exotic dancers, in Lorene Scafaria’sHustlers.” Based on a true story, Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez lead an impressive female ensemble in this engrossing crime drama about a group of women who band together after losing their livelihoods virtually overnight. 

Based on Jessica Pressler’s article “The Hustlers at Scores” (Julia Stiles plays a fictionalized version of the reporter in the interviews that frame the story), “Hustlers” is set over the course of eight years, starting out in 2007 when Dorothy (Wu), better known as Destiny, the daughter of immigrants, takes a job dancing at a high-end NYC gentlemen’s club that caters to Wall Street-types. Veteran dancer Ramona (a flawless Lopez) takes her under her wing, and the more experienced woman treats pole dancing and seduction as an art form. So good is she that she manages to get thousands of dollars from male clients, and even a free luxury apartment, without ever having to have sex with anyone. The 2007 club is indeed portrayed as a glamorous and sexy sorority of sorts, with a fun sisterhood of women of various body types and backgrounds portrayed by Cardi B, Trace Lysette, Lizzo, and more. 

Far from the world of backstabbing one might imagine, the club pre-crash is a place where the women validate and encourage each other, and even the men are mostly harmless fools. Exotic dancing is even romanticized in these halcyon days, and the pinnacle is a visit from none other than Usher, who makes a cameo as himself in a particularly euphoric scene. An upbeat soundtrack that includes hits from that time period, as well as newer tracks from Lopez and others adds to the overall feel of “Hustlers.” Even when the women are at their lowest, they can count on Britney to uplift them.

The plot takes a turn after that fateful crash, and Destiny goes from the high life to being a single mother who can’t even get a job at a department store. Ramona, also a single mom, has to work at Old Navy to make ends meet, if you can imagine J-Lo doing that. The women reunite in 2011 and return to club, only to find that is has become a seedy den for prostitution. This is when Ramona concocts her plan to scam wealthy men out of their money, first using alcohol, and later resorting to the drastic measure of drugging them, convincing Destiny to join her. But this isn’t “Ocean’s 8,” and they make mistakes that lead to their eventual downfall. At first, Ramona and Destiny are aided by the capable Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Mercedes (Keke Palmer), but as they get further and further in, they enlist the help of women from Craigslist, including sloppy crackhead Dawn (Madeline Brewer). Ramona rationalizes what they’re doing as payback to the Wall Street scum who stole money from taxpayers, but the guilt eventually gets to Destiny. 

“Hustlers” isn’t all sex, drugs and crimes, as Scafaria explores deeper themes, particularly those pertaining to motherhood. Just like with her last film “The Meddler,” the maternal instinct is strong here. Ramona is not just a mother to her daughter, but she’s also a mother figure to the “strays” she takes in, such as Dawn, and that’s what leads to her eventual downfall more than her greed. Lopez and Wu’s empathetic performances are what keep the viewer on the side of the women even when they’re at their most despicable; it’s more seduction, in a way. Destiny is at her most empathetic when she works through her own issues dealing with her abandonment by her own mother, a trauma that helps explain why she goes to the lengths she does to provide a good life for her own daughter. 

Hustlers” opens Sept. 13 nationwide.