In Hustlers, the new movie about a group of strippers who orchestrate an ethically dubious scheme to line their pockets at the expense of male patrons, Jennifer Lopez plays a scheming vixen, but she’s also a tender mentor. As Ramona, she takes Constance Wu’s Destiny under her wing—or, more accurately, into the warmth of her massive fur coat. The younger woman is awestruck by Ramona’s moves and her charm.
Destiny and Ramona make an unlikely but fierce pair from their first meeting in Lorene Scafaria’s film, which is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 feature in The Cut. Though the legal and emotional toll of the duo’s swindle eventually wears on them, their connection is genuine, as are the relationships between the other members of the movie’s ensemble. They’re bound together most obviously by their fraudulent schemes, and yet Ramona, Destiny, Mercedes (played by Keke Palmer), and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) show one another a level of compassion that other people have largely denied them.
Hustlers is, on its face, an upbeat true-crime romp full of jazzy dance numbers, flashy mid-2000s fashion, and lurid heists. But Scafaria’s film departs from the tired tropes that animated earlier works about transgressive women, and about strippers in particular. The characters celebrate holidays together and attend family funerals; they swoop in when male partners flee. “I’m so proud of you,” Ramona tells Destiny during one especially festive gathering. “We don’t need anyone else, do we?” Like other recent films about strippers—such as the sultry Magic Mike movies and the earnest Gene Graham documentary released in June, This One’s for the Ladies—Hustlers stands out for its empathetic ethos, and for taking the time to delve into the complex motivations and interpersonal dynamics of its ensemble.