I fell for “Hustlers,” hard, right during the Chopin. In an early scene in Lorene Scafaria’s irresistible based-on-a-true-story heist film, a veteran stripper named Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) gives a newcomer, Destiny (Constance Wu), some pole-dancing tips. She nonchalantly whirls and flies and twists, tossing off difficult moves (one of them is called “the Peter Pan”) with an easy indifference, while a mesmerized Destiny watches, wide-eyed. Scafaria sets all of this to a rippling, ethereal Chopin etude, and it underlines, in an unexpectedly soulful way, the birdlike beauty of the movement — and the relationship being created in the moment.
Not all of “Hustlers” is beautiful, to be sure, but it’s always a kick. Inspired by a New York magazine story by Jessica Pressler (the details of which the movie follows quite closely), the film tells of Ramona and Destiny’s transformation from hardworking strippers to leaders of an effective band of hustlers. Tired of a system in which customers humiliate them and colleagues — managers, DJs, bartenders, security — demand a cut of their increasingly meager post-recession pay, the women concocted a plan: Choose a mark carefully (a Wall Street executive, with money to burn), entice him into an evening of debauchery, and drug him, with a carefully planned cocktail that causes him to loosen his grip on his credit cards — and to forget, by the next morning, exactly what happened. “The game is rigged,” says Ramona, so why not level the playing field?
Like all hustles, this one doesn’t work forever. But it’s a good game while it lasts, and a pleasure to watch this cast creating a raunchy sisterhood. Lopez, slinking through the movie like a satisfied cat (in one early shot, she’s smoking on a rooftop wearing her stripper leotard, a fur coat and sequined platforms, and damned if she doesn’t make it all look like couture), is impossibly cool, reminding us of what a presence she was in “Out of Sight” a couple of decades back. Wu shows us Destiny’s quiet determination — to support her grandmother and young daughter, to survive in a world where everything seems stacked against her — and gleeful satisfaction when the tables are turned. You root for them and for the film, which is over too quickly; you just want to hang with these women a little longer.
★★★½ “Hustlers,” with Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Mercedes Ruehl, Cardi B. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, based on an article written by Jessica Pressler. 110 minutes. Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity. Opens Sept. 13 at multiple theaters.