Scafaria’s ingenious script first lays out the basics of the world, as Destiny tries to establish herself at a strip club dominated by Ramona and flooded with dollar-bill-waving finance goons. The screenplay could have been rife with backstabbing and betrayal, but once Ramona invites Destiny to curl up in her fur coat within the first 15 minutes, the film morphs into an amped-up celebration of friendship and sisterhood in a world marginalized by polite society. Then, when the market downturn hits and the horny stockbrokers stop visiting, Ramona and Destiny devise new, illegal ways to continue making money and end up presiding over a miniature criminal empire.
Hustlers would be fun enough if Ramona served as a preening villain who seduces Destiny into a life of ill repute. But Scafaria never takes the easy way out, never entirely tips the balance in one character’s favor or tuts at another’s immorality or misbehavior. Hustlers is set in a seedy world where every stakeholder—the businessmen running the strip clubs, and their venal counterparts who make up the clientele—already stands on shaky ethical ground. Scafaria illustrates the myriad ways Destiny and her friends are exploited by an industry that doesn’t value them as humans, and then lets viewers exult a little as they try to claw the power back, even if we know their success can’t last forever.
Ramona is the film’s emotional core: She is capable of callousness and has a short temper, but she’s also fiercely loyal and preternaturally bewitching. In recent years, Lopez has too often taken roles in movies such as Second Act and The Boy Next Door that lacked an edge, a sense of danger to complement her natural charm. From the moment when, minutes into Hustlers, she storms into the club accompanied by a period-appropriate soundtrack of danceable bangers, it’s hard not to fall under her sway, just as Destiny does. There’s no scorching romance at the heart of this narrative. The central love story is the one between these two friends, which is disrupted when the girls start drugging men and running up charges on their credit cards.
As the group (which includes Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, both giving wonderful performances) weaves its tangled web, the film could have pushed aside the fun digressions and celebrity cameos for a sober reminder that what Ramona and Destiny did was wrong. But Scafaria has enough respect for the audience not to lecture them. Her last movie, 2016’s The Meddler, had a similarly formulaic-sounding premise (a daughter is hassled by her dotty and controlling mother), yet it ignored obvious tropes in favor of warm characterization and emotional depth. Hustlers features too fine an ensemble to descend into moralizing. Instead, Scafaria reckons with the economic hardship Ramona and her crew faced, and how it pushed them to ignore the brutality of their actions.