Lopez plays Ramona, a dancer at a Manhattan strip club who in 2007 takes a newbie named Destiny (Constance Wu) under her protective wing. “Climb in my fur,” Ramona beckons to her protegee, opening a luxurious coat, puffing a cigarette and propping up one knee on vertiginous platform heels. She’s a lioness and lethal weapon, as tough as she is tender, and in the course of Destiny’s decidedly unsentimental education, Ramona not only tutors her charge in how to perform a proper pole dance but, eventually, in how to fleece privileged white guys whose impunity and vanity make them as vulnerable as the most naive rubes from the sticks.
Adapted by writer-director Lorene Scafaria from a New York magazine article about a similar scam perpetrated by a group of dancers at the New York club Scores, “Hustlers” is a funny, naughty, enormously entertaining kick in the pants, promising to be an East Coast “Showgirls,” only to wind up a girls-rule “Goodfellas,” leading viewers into a vicariously thrilling underworld ruled by money, drugs, seduction and a sliding moral scale dictated by ruthless realpolitik.
“The game is rigged, and it doesn’t reward people who play by the rules,” Ramona says flatly at one point, when the scam she and Destiny have been running — drugging wealthy men and running up their credit cards — threatens to become deadly serious. When the dollars start drying up in the crash of 2008, the women resort to extreme measures to make their rent and support their families (both have little girls at home). They’re not doing anything to their victims that the masters of the universe haven’t done to the country, Ramona insists — adding that not one Wall Street crook went to jail.
She isn’t wrong, of course, even if that justification allows “Hustlers” to have its cake and eat it, too: The film might not entirely approve of its heroines’ actions, but it clearly sympathizes with their needs and aspirations. Enlisting a terrific group of game supporting actresses — including the rappers Lizzo and Cardi B, making auspiciously amusing screen debuts — Scafaria stands proudly behind her protagonists, providing a thumbnail taxonomy of strip club regulars from boiler-room bros to C-suite sexual harassers, and training her camera on women’s naked bodies with a refreshing sense of playfulness and celebration rather than a predatory leer. Even when the fall comes, which it inevitably does, she cushions it with the same genuine affection that has built up between women who have become sisters, mothers and mentors to one another in the absence of family they can count on.
Blessed by a propulsive soundtrack of sick beats and lots of decadent sequences of dancing, hugging, popping champagne and trying on fabulous shoes and body-con cocktail dresses, “Hustlers” has its share of repetitive filler, mostly in the form of slow-motion shots of Ramona, Destiny and their crew (played by Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) looking fierce as they bear down on their next target. But by then, we’re as much under their spell as the poor sap at the bar: attracted, somewhat repelled, utterly and hopelessly transfixed.
Nowhere is this truer than with the 50-year-old Lopez, who makes a magnificent entrance in “Hustlers” with an athletic, graceful and erotic dance number, and never lets go from there. Once again, she proves what an instinctive, spontaneous actress she is, infusing Ramona with her own Bronx-born street smarts, and carrying herself with the feline regality she’s acquired over a nearly 30-year career as one of the entertainment industry’s most gifted triple threats. In this raunchy, gloriously liberated revenge fantasy, Lopez rules with seductive, triumphant authority. Not only do we climb into her fur, we’ll happily follow her anywhere.
R. At area theaters. Contains pervasive sexual material, drugs, crude language and nudity. 107 minutes.