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Jennifer Lopez steals 'Hustlers,' where cash and catharsis swirl like confetti

Eric Webb
ewebb@statesman.com
Constance Wu, left, and Jennifer Lopez star in "Hustlers," based on a true story. [Contributed by Barbara Nitke/STXfilms]

Every girl has muscles to do this.

Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona says that while clutching a strip club pole early in “Hustlers.” She’s talking about pole-dancing moves — the Peter Pan, the Tabletop, real core strength-testing stuff — to a newbie played by Constance Wu. But in a world of Wall Street wolves taxing your time and greedy managers skimming your stacks, Ramona’s words are a wink. Take your power, she’s saying. And that’s something at which the women in this film are very, very good. Just, you know, with crime.

Director Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” adapted from a New York Magazine story by Jessica Pressler, grabs tightly to this idea and executes the spin flawlessly. Opening in the late 2000s, the film finds Wu’s Destiny just trying to take care of her grandmother and make ends meet. Lap dances for wealthy louts at her strip club gig aren’t cutting it. Enter Ramona — and we are talking the textbook definition of a cinematic entrance, decked out in sparkling silver tassels and platform heels, with Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” playing. She’s the club’s alpha dancer, an athletic and sensual goddess who moves like gravity is just another client waiting to throw bills at the stage. She takes Destiny under her wing (or under her fur coat, as the case might be), and pretty soon the younger woman has found a family.

Then the 2007 financial crash blows through their world like a hurricane. The money men have lost their jobs (and everyone else’s). They’re either not coming into the club or they’re asking the dancers for more while shelling out less for the trouble.

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So Ramona and Destiny, joined by a couple of sisters in entrepreneurship, the daffy Mercedes (Keke Palmer; broad comic timing) and wide-eyed Annabelle (Lili Reinhart; there), seize the moment. Their hustle: scouting marks at bars (always look for the expensive loafers), drugging them, taking them back to the club, running their credit cards to the stratosphere and taking a healthy cut for themselves. What, who’s gonna tell the cops they spent too much money at the strip club?

You’ve heard of economic anxiety as a buzzword. “Hustlers” offers a spin that doesn’t look like the thinkpieces you’re used to. It’s an anti-1% catharsis heralding a gleeful “they had it coming” exhalation. As Ramona points out in “Hustlers,” these men have stolen everything from innocent people — retirement funds! — and haven’t gotten so much as a slap on the wrist. Who, exactly, is making all these rules we've been playing by?

The film never quite condones the women’s crimes, but it sure makes it hard not to sympathize with them. A decade later, in an America where millennials can’t afford houses and Flint, Mich., still doesn’t have clean water, where headlines scrutinize government spending at hotels owned by the president and another recession seems just around the corner, a romp like “Hustlers” can't help but sit hard in the back of your head hours after you see it

All credit due to Scafaria, who juggles the interpersonal dynamics of a stacked cast with a twisty-turny, years-spanning plot and never takes her eye off the ball. It would have been easy for “Hustlers” to spin out of control into a flurry of glitter-coated tropes. But Ramona, Destiny and the crew palpably care about each other; you won’t find any hack character arcs here.

It helps when you have “true story” plausibility to lean into, and Scafaria paces her film with assurance and an iPod’s worth of well-placed musical cues, from Britney Spears and Kelly Rowland to Usher and Frankie Valli.

Never once does “Hustlers” leer — these women do not have to fight for the power in their own movie. Look back to Lopez’s entrance. Even as dollars bloom like confetti and as nameless, faceless men holler, she’s calling the shots from start to finish, and the camera tracks her flips and dips like it’s watching Serena at Wimbledon.

Incidentally, welcome to the Lopezaissance. “Hustlers” has already earned the multi-hyphenate entertainer Oscar buzz out of the Toronto International Film Festival, which will sound overblown to some until they actually put their butt in a theater seat. Put respect on the name of Jenny from the block, who strikes not one false note in her ferocious, tender performance. On the loud end, she dazzles in a tornado of bodycon dresses, honey-highlighted blowouts and felonious capers. On the quiet end, she’s a mother in every sense of the word, particularly glowing in a lovely Christmas scene. Could “Hustlers” even have happened without Lopez as Ramona? It’s hard to picture anyone else pulling off slow-dancing in a silken Santa suit of monochromatic creams. Well, maybe Mary J. Blige.

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Ramona remains a little unknowable, a little untouchable throughout, because “Hustlers” peers through the eyes of Wu’s character. Her turns in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Fresh Off the Boat” (or web series “Eastsiders,” for those of us who have been on the Wu train for a hot minute) couldn’t have predicted her cracked-open turn as Destiny, who is razor-sharp in every way. She knows her way around a rolling tear.

Palmer and Reinhart are definitely sidecars here, but all praise is due to brief turns as members of the strip club sisterhood from rappers Lizzo and Cardi B (who famously worked as a stripper before becoming a chart-topping superstar). Lizzo gets perhaps the best line in the whole movie and gets to put a flute where it normally wouldn’t go. Cardi, well, no one would bat a well-glued 301 lash if we found out Scafaria just let the “Bodak Yellow” rapper loose and had a camera capture what happened naturally. They’re incandescent. You miss them as soon as they’re gone.

“Hustlers” opens with Janet Jackson’s “Control,” an ace classic in the flipped-script pop canon, where someone who’s used to the bottom of society’s neck-crushing ladder says, “Nah, no more.” It’s a deftly asserted thesis for the movie, which itself accomplishes what all great pop does: say something smart and go on a hell of a ride so people listen. As one memorable line in the movie goes, everyone wants to be on top where there are no consequences. It might not always be right, but don’t let anyone say you haven’t got the muscles to get there.

'Hustlers'

Grade: A-

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lizzo, Julia Stiles

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Rated: R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South Lamar, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Stone Hill, Westgate