Writer-director Lorene Scafaria asks a timely question in “Hustlers”: Why should the guys always get to make the movies, like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” that take a true crime story to indict the cesspool that is Wall Street.
The women take command here, though in a setting usually depicted as a man-boy’s playground: A Manhattan strip club. It’s where Dorothy, professional name Destiny (played by Constance Wu), is the new girl, getting meager tips while other dancers get the big bucks separating Wall Street traders from their money in the rah-rah financial boom of 2007.
Destiny sees the club’s top earner, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), and quickly becomes an eager student. Soon Destiny is also bringing in the dollar-dollar bills, as the most predatory traders come in and drop $10,000 or more in the champagne room. Then the financial crash of 2008 happens, and the well runs dry.
Flash-forward to 2011, as Destiny recounts in 2014 to a magazine writer (Julia Stiles), and Destiny is mother to a two-year-old, caring for her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), and trying to make money again. One night, she runs into Ramona, who has an idea for a new scam: Pick up rich guys, ply them with drink and drugs, and get them to the club — where the women can run up their credit cards for a few thousand, but not so much as the men will notice.
Teaming with two friends from the club, Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhardt), Ramona and Destiny run the scam to great success. But greed, along with Ramona’s ambitions and knack for taking in strays — like the coked-out Dawn (Madeline Brewer) — threaten to bring the whole enterprise crashing down.
Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend at the End of the World”) has studied the Martin Scorsese playbook perfectly, and there’s a distinct “Wolf of Wall Street”/“GoodFellas” vibe to the accumulation of money, furs and Louis Vuitton bags. (The use of Lorde’s “Royals” at one point seems a bit on the nose.) It’s exhilarating, though, to watch as these women use their wits, their guile, and their bodies to take back a piece of the Wall Streeters’ ill-gotten gains, and using the men’s arrogance as a weapon against them.
It’s also exciting to see Lopez take a role like Ramona and run with it. Besides doing her own stripper-pole acrobatics, Lopez digs into the character’s greed, revenge and heartbreak to give perhaps the performance of her career. “Hustlers” may build up a false facade of wealth and power dynamics, but Lopez proves she’s the genuine article.
Opens, Friday, Sept. 13, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity. Running time: 109 minutes.