Jennifer Lopez lead the impressive cast of Hustlers, that’s proving to be a welcome surprise hit – here’s our review.

If you’ve been following the filmography of writer-director Lorene Scafaria over the last few years, Hustlers marks a considerable step up. As the film approaches the $100 million mark at the US box office, it’s gratifying to see the filmmaker behind such underrated gems as Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and The Meddler not only find widespread critical and financial success, but also take a huge leap forward in filmmaking.

Sharing more in common with The Big Short than with Magic Mike, the film follows Destiny (Constance Wu), a young woman who grinds night after night at her thankless job in a New York strip club, until the more experienced Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes her under her wing and teaches her an object lesson about their profession – if you’re going to convince men to part with their cash, there are smarter ways to use their sexuality to achieve that.

For a while, times are good, but with a customer base concentrated around Wall Street, they’re hit hard by the 2008 financial crash. A few years later, Ramona teams up with Destiny to enact an audacious yet lucrative scheme that involves picking up rich, unfaithful married men in bars for a night on the town, before drugging them and maxing out their credit cards. In essence, they’re playing the men at their own game.

Scafaria pulls off the same feat just as effectively, if a little more honestly, as Hustlers is borne aloft by sheer self-assurance. It operates on a level as functionally excellent as the Scorseses and the Stones, while also having the grace to be quick, funny, and – yes – less than three hours long.

The first act is a revelation, in the sense that while you’ve seen countless strip club scenes directed by men, few of them could ever hold a candle to the female gaze as deployed here – these scenes are sexy but not sexualised, and they lack any of the leering qualities of their genre fellows. But then the first act isn’t entirely indicative of the tone of this modern crime drama, except to say that it sets you up for a hell of a fun time at the movies.

It’s after this raucous opening that the film reveals its main framing device, which sees Destiny recounting her version of events to an investigative reporter (Julia Stiles) after the fact. From there, the film knuckles down with the criminal caper, with Wu’s layered performance as Destiny serving as a sympathetic grounding between her past and her unrepentant present self.

But the film’s emotional core comes from the central friendship between Destiny and Ramona, and the latter is the sort of instantly iconic movie character that rarely gets written for women to play. By taking hold of the opportunity with both hands, Lopez absolutely rules the movie. From her classic entrance to the bittersweet parting shot, she earns all of the buzz around her chances of Best Supporting Actress gongs with her cool, controlled performance.

The ensemble is rounded out by Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Madeline Brewer, all playing other strippers who become embroiled in the ensuing caper. Following a fairly classic moral arc for a crime movie of this kind, the film revels in its female characters taking control of what they do and sticking it to the patriarchy but also delivers consequences when those same characters start getting greedy.

Scafaria shows off hitherto unseen directorial flair in pulling it all off, especially in keeping the film light and enjoyable even through a wilfully absurd scene where Destiny and Ramona cook up a batch of party drugs. The unity of tone also extends to the film’s soundtrack, which includes an array of classical needle drops in all of the peak capering scenes but also handily charts the film’s time-span from 2007 to 2014 with perfectly picked chart hits like Sean Kingston’s Beautiful Girls and Lorde’s Royals.

If the film ever stumbles, it’s only in sticking the landing. While a jubilant pre-credits sequence leaves you smiling and provides a well-earned volte for a massively entertaining film, it hardly masks what turns out to be an abrupt climax. It’s not that the film needs to be any longer than it is, only that it skids a little as it brings the story to a halt.

Happily, there’s no danger of Hustlers being dismissed so quickly. With superb work from the various women involved on either side of the camera, it’s a witty and welcome departure from the meat-and-potatoes fare that often comes out of the genres it lashes together.

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