There’s a moment, not ten minutes into Lorene Scafaria’s bulletproof new movie Hustlers, that immediately vaults Jennifer Lopez into the pantheon of “greatest cinematic introductions of all time.” It’s 2007, and we’re inside a strobe-lit strip club in Manhattan. Constance Wu’s Destiny is staring at the stage. The DJ turns on his microphone. “And now, let’s welcome to the main stage, the one, the only, Ramona!” Lopez slinks into frame in a bedazzled captain’s hat and matching cape; this is her boat now. The DJ pipes Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in from the club’s speakers as the 50-year-old icon begins to dance. Dollars shower her. Patrons—the ones not hollering and slamming their sweaty palms on the side of the stage—sit back stunned, their jaws slack, their eyes glazed over, as Lopez masterfully works a gilded pole as shimmering as her outfit.
Reminder: this is how Hustlers, the year’s best movie thus far, begins. Starting with a bang is one thing, though; maintaining that energy throughout its entire runtime is what makes this strippers-turned-criminals flick such a masterful feat.
Based on a New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” by Jessica Pressler (tagline: “Here’s a modern Robin Hood story for you: a few strippers who stole from (mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting, (in their minds) pathetic men and gave to, well, themselves”), Hustlers follows Lopez’s Ramona and Wu’s Destiny as they team up together with their fellow dancers at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis to, frankly, bleed Wall Street bigwigs dry. They lace their drinks with stupor-inducing drug cocktails, and swipe their platinum cards freely without batting an eyelash or, really, lifting a finger. If you’ve read the story (or seen literally any movie at all before), you’ll know the towering heights the women ascend to—expensive furs, penthouse apartments, cars as big as yachts, bags as big as cars—prove unsustainable as the women’s operations expand.
But my god what a journey this movie takes before it gets to that crash landing, shepherded by an excellent Wu—Hustlers flashes forward, on occasion, to interview segments with Destiny years later as a narrative device, which works well and is only minimally obtrusive—who is equal parts steely and affected in her starring role here. She’s funny and observant, and the speed at which she becomes the group’s real ringleader, credit or not, is believable only because Wu sells that cocktail of confidence and to-hell-with-this exasperation so effortlessly.
Hustlers is aided by the year’s strongest supporting cast, playing to strengths in ways big (chart-topper Lizzo’s R-rated use of a flute backstage at the club) and small (supernova Cardi B’s very minimal onscreen time, used to pitch-perfect effect; get this woman a starring vehicle ASAP). Transparent star Trace Lysette shines whenever she’s given camera time; Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart do excellent, quick supporting work and are both finally given ample opportunity to flex their extremely versatile chops in roles that don’t reduce them to mere sidekicks. And I’d be loathe to forget G-Eazy, who shows up in a small, surprise role as Wu’s boyfriend, making the most of his brief moments.
But this is unquestionably Jennifer Lopez’s moment. Ramona presents a challenge. She needs to be both alluring and dangerous; audiences have to sympathize with her, to understand why she’s committing these crimes, why she’s roping in other young women, why she’s getting reckless, why she’s willing to overlook clear cracks in the foundation of her plan because the whole thing’s gotten too out of control. On those fronts and more, Lopez delivers. Her Ramona is warm, like the fur coat on her shoulders that she opens up to Destiny early on. She’s weary, too, tired of shitty bosses (Jon Glaser in a great bit part as a manager), of not truly owning every cent of what she’s earned. Lopez has long been an incredibly overlooked actress (do people never tire of making Gigli jokes? Is that why we so often breeze past her sharp, controlled excellence in movies like Maid in Manhattan or Monster-in-Law?). In Hustlers, the floor is hers to cede. If there’s justice in the world, there’s awards play in her future.
Towards the end of the film (and yes, spoilers ahead), Ramona’s pushed into a cold, metal seat in a nondescript police precinct somewhere downtown. She’s in a black velvet hoodie, her hair immaculate, her jewelry catching every beam of fluorescent light. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” she says, despite the fact that she’s been caught and she knows it. But none of that matters. What does it that you believe her. And believe her, you do.
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Originally Appeared on GQ