'Hustlers' is a crowd-pleasing blast with a conscience

Brad Keefe

So obviously the tastes of film critics and mass audiences don’t always line up. My running list of the best movies of 2019 is not exactly parallel to the top box-office champs of the year.

That said, I’m fairly confident in predicting that “Hustlers” is going to be a hit, and I’m also here to say I am about this.

Based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler about a group of former strip-club employees who scammed their former clients, “Hustlers” wraps a heist movie around a glitzy night at the club.

And in a twist worthy of the subject matter, any male audience member going solely for titillation will also get a dose of female empowerment. Surprise!

In a story structured a bit like “Goodfellas,” think of Destiny (Constance Wu of “Crazy Rich Asians”) as the Ray Liotta character. It’s 2007, and she’s a young dancer learning the business when she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), an experienced stripper who has this game on lock.

Ramona takes Destiny under her wing, and they reap the benefits of a New York strip club scene awash in Wall Street bro money. Then the financial sector crash upends their world.

It turns out there was no bailout for that industry, as the once-packed clubs see a downturn in attendance and an upturn in skeevy-ness.

So Ramona and the gang turn to a new hustle, targeting rich married men and convincing them through a combo of flirting, alcohol and eventually drugs to head to the strip club to separate them from the funds in their corporate accounts.

“Hustlers” is a familiar rise-and-fall crime caper concept with some layers, and it manages to say a lot without being preachy. In fact, it’s so consistently entertaining, funny and flashy, you might not even get some of the messages.

The buzz around Lopez’s performance is accurate. It’s the best she’s been in years, a mix of toughness with a mischievous twinkle. An Oscar nod might be a stretch, but if this movie ends up making serious bank, you can bank on it.

Wu gets to work with a lot more range, and she’s the emotional anchor here, especially when the moral lines get hazy.

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria moves through tones effortlessly here. It’s a girl power party movie often. It’s a takedown of economic and gender inequality at times. It’s a crime drama on occasion. But it all feels like one movie, and that’s hard to pull off.

The cast is uniformly great, including early appearances by both Cardi B and Lizzo(!). Perhaps most notable is just how little screen time men get. I think this one scores 100 on the Bechdel test.

But to boil it down, you likely won’t have more fun at the movies this weekend than “Hustlers.” Go be the word-of-mouth buzz for your friends.

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4 stars out of 5