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Destiny (Wu) watches Ramona (Lopez) on the pole.
Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers.

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Hustlers is the female-led heist movie we’ve been waiting for

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu head the terrific cast

It’s difficult to imagine that any movie in theaters this year will be more sheer, rollicking fun — or more fabulous, or more full of feeling — than Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. Based on Jessica Pressler’s “The Hustlers at Scores,” the film upends expectations on multiple levels, providing the strippers at its center with the agency of which they’re usually robbed on screen, as well as punching above the emotional weight you might expect for a film about a hustle gone wrong.

The real-life events the movie portrays took place in the late 2000s, as the global financial crisis pulled the rug out from under the sex industry and led a group of strippers to turn to conning their wealthy clients to bring in money. The rise and fall is fairly cut and dry — no scam can last forever — but anything seemingly formulaic about Hustlers is counteracted by just how confidently it’s directed and performed, as well as how grounded it is in both an oft-ignored industry and a frighteningly recent history.

The story is told in flashbacks as Destiny (Constance Wu) relays the events to a journalist (Julia Stiles), talking through things from her early experience as a stripper, the golden days after Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) took her under her wing, the crash, and the chaos that followed. From Hustlers’ first moments, in which Destiny encounters Ramona in a scene that rivals any of the great romantic introductions in cinema, complete with slow motion, it’s clear that the women hold all the power, rather than being objects to be leered at, saved, fridged, or used as set dressing.

Destiny (Wu) is wrapped up in Ramona’s (Lopez) giant fur coat.
Ramona (Lopez) takes Destiny (Wu) under her wing.
Photo: STXfilms

The film also isn’t limited by the buddy-heist genre’s sense of machismo. Rather, it plays fully into the way the line between platonic love can border upon the romantic in such intense partnerships without having to introduce opposite-sex love interests for the sake of heteronormativity. This isn’t to say that Hustlers is an out-and-out love story, but it deftly hits the emotional peaks and valleys of Heat and Point Break, to the point that, in Scafaria’s hands, Usher’s “Love in This Club” transforms from a cheesy club banger to a chill-inducing, triumphant ode to the halcyon days, and the inevitable dissolution of things becomes utterly heartbreaking.

Admittedly, the film is occasionally a little heavy-handed when it comes to explaining just where these women are coming from — a tense moment between Destiny and Elizabeth involves Destiny probing Elizabeth’s privileged background and the way she’s never had to worry about money — but it’s heavy-handedness for a worthy cause. Destiny’s insistence, for instance, that Elizabeth’s piece not portray all strippers as scammers and reinforce negative stereotypes about the profession, feels important to make. Strippers and sex workers are often incidental in blockbusters rather than main characters; now that they’re in the spotlight, so are the misconceptions (and preconceptions) about them.

On the other side of the coin, as difficult as it is to root against Destiny and Ramona, Scafaria doesn’t shy away from making it clear that they’re not exactly committing victimless crimes. The key is just that we know where these women are coming from.

Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Ramona (Lopez), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and Destiny (Wu) pop open a bottle of champagne.
The women of Hustlers celebrate.

If anything, the film, based on a true story, feels more like the female reboot of a franchise than any of the actual remakes and reboots in that vein that we’ve gotten (Ocean’s 8, Ghostbusters, Men in Black: International, etc.) in that it tells the kind of story usually reserved for men with a cast full of women. Unlike those attempts, Hustlers never once feels like it’s just “a heist movie but with women;” it’s a full-fledged epic, made by and about women, and proof positive that female-centered films can flourish without being based on a pre-existing male-based IP.

It’s also remarkable watching a profession that’s generally the subject of much leering (i.e. the male gaze) become almost un-fetishized. Even the worst costumes — the 2000s were a black hole for fashion, we all know this — don’t feel like things to be gawked at so much as battle armor, and male characters are almost nonexistent. Only a few of the men have names, and of those, barely any have more than a line or two.

Hustlers feels both old and new in that respect; it’s doing something that Hollywood has tried before, but does it so well that it feels entirely novel. It’s also a defining performance from Lopez, who is absolutely magnetic as the ringleader of the group. Through her, we understand why Ramona was so captivating for Destiny, but also less than willing to show vulnerability in a demanding industry. Hustlers may not look like stereotypical awards bait, but the subversion of expectations is part of the point. Hopefully, the message will be clarion enough to carry the film to success come awards season, which it richly deserves.

Hustlers opens in theaters Sept. 13.

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