Hustlers is about empowerment, sorta. A group of New York strippers decide to turn the tables on the men who exploit them—the skeezy club-owners, the slavering clients—and cut themselves in on some of the big money that's been passing them by. It's a girl-gang revenge movie.
But wait. Their "revenge" actually involves drugging and robbing men who for the most part have done nothing more than avail themselves of these women's services. After slipping the guys a brain-frazzling mixture of MDMA (to keep them happy about handing over their credit cards) and ketamine (to cloud any memory of having done so), they max out the marks' accounts to finance expeditions through the lush fields of Gucci, Louboutin and Louis Vuitton. One of their victims—who seems like a nice guy, really—is unable to make a mortgage payment after the girls empty him out and is left ruined. As one of the women tells one of these wiped-out men, "You had an epic night. It costs money." This being a based-on-a-true-story movie (drawn from a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler), you hope that these ladies at least did a little jail time.
But wait. The guys they're taking down are Wall Street assholes—braying morons who think nothing of dropping ten or fifteen thousand dollars in a night at a high-end strip club. And part of the story is set around 2009, in the thick of a catastrophic economic collapse; it's the golden age of government bailouts, so the money these Wall Street yobbos are now throwing around has actually been extracted from taxpayers. As a dancer named Ramona (a fiery star turn by Jennifer Lopez) later asks, "Do you see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hardworking people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail." Okay, screw these guys.
The movie's moral nuance is refreshing: None of these characters have God entirely on their side. The strippers do elicit sympathy—we see that a few of them have kids and grandmas to support, and it's tough. But even though the movie's director (Lorene Scafaria) and all of its main cast are women, this is not a feminist lecture (although it must be admitted there are no good guys in sight).
The story centers on a warm, mentoring friendship between a veteran dancer called Ramona (Lopez, whom we meet gorgeously contorting herself on a stripper pole) and a newbie called Destiny (Constance Wu, of Crazy Rich Asians). Circling these two are fellow dancers/co-conspirators Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart (and, briefly, Cardi B and Lizzo).
First off, Scafaria, who also wrote the script, shows us what life is like for these strippers or dancers or whatever they're supposed to be (some of the women actually strip, but the leads don't). When they get paid (in cash) at the end of the night, various layers of management always take a bite. And when a girl leads a customer back to the "champagne room" for a lap dance, chances are he'll want sex, too – and then will likely cheat her after she acquiesces. The issue of age—of a woman's sell-by date in this business – is also addressed. Lopez, who doesn't look anywhere near her own age (50), subtly conveys Ramona's casual humiliation in a scene in which she and two younger women are in a private room partying with two men when one of them slips her some cash and tells her to leave: "We're not feeling it," he says.
When the economic downturn really hits, and strip clubs start feeling the squeeze, Ramona and her squad branch out into a more elaborate area of endeavor (which involves a few too many bar scenes). Along the way there are some nicely written interludes—especially the scene in which an old woman dreamily recalls the lone touched-by-greatness moment in her life: "I once danced with Frankie Valli," she says (a cue for the old Four Seasons hit "Rag Doll," a resonant novelty in a soundtrack that otherwise inclines more toward Remy Ma, Janet Jackson, Flo Rida, and Usher – who turns up in a club scene playing himself and tossing wads of cash in the air.)
The movie has two problems. One is the question of who we're supposed to root for. The men are creeps, but the women aren't exactly blameless either. Fortunately, the question becomes moot whenever Lopez is around, juicing every scene she's in.
The other problem is the movie's structural similarity to Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese was at one point considering directing this film), which gives the picture a second-hand feeling as it plays out. And Scorsese's films presented their subjects—middle-aged gangsters and an out-of-control stock-market hotshot—as creatures of legend, of glorious times and grand actions. Bogus notions, maybe, but the New York strip-club scene can't quite carry that sort of myth-making weight. Nobody even gets shot.