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Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu prepare to splurge on an Escalade in "Hustlers."

I’ve been on the “Jennifer Lopez can act” bandwagon ever since I saw Out of Sight back in 1998. It has been rough sledding for the past 21 years. Instead of giving us Oscar-worthy performances, this star has given us the music career, the sidelight as a fashion designer, the stint on American Idol, and too many substandard thrillers and romantic comedies to count (and, oh yeah, Gigli). In Hustlers, she portrays a stripper who turns creative and criminal when the going gets tough, and the resulting film is more than just something for me to point to and say, “See?” It’s one of the better movies of this year.

Based on a real-life news story reported in New York magazine, the film is told from the point of view of Dorothy a.k.a. Destiny (Constance Wu), who in 2007 has recently started dancing at a club called Moves to provide for her aging grandma (Wai Ching Ho). Taking her under her fur coat is Ramona (Lopez), a dancer well aware that she’s old by stripper standards who nevertheless can still rake in singles with her routines. Their customers are Wall Street stooges who have cash to throw around, and life is good for a while. When the 2008 financial crisis hits and the business dries up, Ramona recruits Destiny and two younger strippers (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) into an operation in which they go to bars, ply stockbrokers with alcohol, and bring them to Moves, where they drug them and run up their credit cards. With the men reluctant to contest their fraudulent charges, it’s a foolproof scheme, until it isn’t. The framing story is Destiny relating all this after the fact to a journalist (Julia Stiles).

Much like the Magic Mike films, this drills into the particulars of how these strippers go about their jobs. I must confess I was fascinated by the scene in which Ramona demonstrates her moves on the pole for Destiny, opening a window onto the profession’s fascinating terminology (tabletop, reverse stag, fairy sit, fireman). Writer-director Lorene Scafaria previously wrote a movie I liked (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and directed one that I really didn’t (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), and she observes the camaraderie in the strippers’ dressing room quite astutely, casting pop music stars Cardi B (who stripped in real life) and Lizzo (repping the plus-size women onstage). Too, the sequence in which Ramona sizes up the different types of Wall Street clients in the club is enlightening. The soundtrack is well-chosen, and the choreographed dance routine to Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” at the end is a great capper.

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(The classical piano expert in me can’t help but notice the use of no less than 10 Chopin études on the soundtrack, all of them accompanying scenes in which Ramona shows Destiny the ropes.)

More importantly, she infuses this with a sense of glee that was palpably missing from other female-centric crime movies such as Ocean’s 8, Widows, The Kitchen, and the similarly titled The Hustle. She keeps our eye on the fun that these women ripping off these rich assholes. Sure, the strippers like to spend their ill-gotten gains clearing their debts and buying nice clothes, but it’s the thrill of the hunt and the fear of being caught that animates them, as they march in a phalanx towards another hapless mark and avoid the men who are too disciplined or skittish or smart to fall for their game. This film has garnered comparisons to Scorsese, and while Scafaria doesn’t have his visual sense, she does have his flair. She even puts in a tracking shot imitating the famous one from Goodfellas, following Destiny and her fellow strippers from the dressing room to the club floor.

Of course, in a Scorsese mob movie, pride always goeth before the fall, and so it is here. Ramona keeps up her extravagant spending even when the money is no longer coming in and expands the workforce to include sketchy types like the straight-up cokehead (Madeline Brewer) who is the domino that topples the whole business. This leads to a definitive break between Ramona and Destiny that is unexpectedly, wrenchingly traumatic. Scafaria does well with the sense that the wheels are coming off the strippers’ enterprise, but it’s the acting that makes this part of the film, with Wu and Lopez making an assured comedy team. Wu does better than you’d expect with the dramatic fireworks here, and Lopez matches her as a smooth, in-charge operator who watches her protégées betray her one by one. Perhaps it’s on the nose to cast her as a scrapper from the outer boroughs who uses her body for male attention, but here that persona is tinged with an awareness of the limits of what sexiness can do and the need to supplement that with brains.

Inevitably, the strippers’ marks include more than just corporate sharks who can afford to lose a few bucks. They rope in a sad sack (Steven Boyer) looking for some solace after a series of personal tragedies, and Ramona’s heartlessness toward him is contrasted with Destiny’s guilt. While the strippers’ conduct is disgusting at times, Hustlers doesn’t indict them. Rather, it indicts the society that encourages them to act like the men they’re victimizing. “This entire country is a strip club,” says Ramona in the scandal’s aftermath. “There’s the people throwing the cash, and there’s the people doing the dance.” I’m finding that one hard to argue with.

Hustlers

Starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, based on Jessica Pressler’s article. Rated R.

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