When “Hustlers” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7, it seemed to have one thing working in its favor: Jennifer Lopez. Otherwise, the film’s path to release was a murky one: it was dropped by original financer, Annapurna, right before production began; it had a packed, eight-week production schedule and there were rumors of a behind-the-scenes feud between stars Constance Wu and Lopez; all that added to the fact that a movie about strippers doesn’t exactly invite high expectations. And yet, against all odds, “Hustlers” has exceeded all expectations, currently sitting at a 79 on Metacritic and holding a score of 88 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. When the film opened last week, it shattered all early projections and raked in a whopping $33.2 million, becoming J-Lo’s highest live-action opening of her career, and the biggest opening for a female-directed film since “Wonder Woman.”

Creative Common Constance Wu.jpg

SOMETHING DIFFERENT: Instead of taking on more comedic characters that audiences are familiar with from her, Constance Wu chose to pick up a challenging role.

So, why all the rage for a movie about strippers?

Put simply, “Hustlers,” which is based on the 2014 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” is not a stripper movie. The film’s director and writer, Lorene Scafaria, cleverly made a film about the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis under the guise of a “stripper movie”. Yes, the characters at the center of the story are all strippers, but Scafaria’s lens is about exploring a world that pushes women into the profession. When we first meet Wu’s Destiny, the film’s main character (circa 2007), she has started stripping to support her aging grandmother. But, contrary to popular belief, stripping is not a quick-cash job: Destiny loses most of her earnings to payments she has to make to her club’s deejays and security guards. When the stock market crashes in 2008, her situation only devolves into further financial shambles; Destiny struggles to make ends meet on her own and her stripping venue has a significantly smaller clientele. Destiny’s plight feeds into to her fascination with Lopez’s Ramona, one of the club’s most in-demand performers. After seeing Ramona do an elaborate pole dance, Destiny pursues Ramona in the hopes of learning the ropes. The maternal Ramona is quick to take Destiny under her wing, inviting her to share a mink coat with the timeless line, “come inside my fur.” However, Ramona’s kind gesture quickly evolves into a money-making scheme, in which Ramona, Destiny and a colorful, merry band of fellow strippers begin to drug their powerful Wall Street clients and ring up large sums on their credit cards.

Once the film delves into the criminal aspects of its plot, it puts itself at risk of making its characters wholly unsympathetic. Scafaria manages to avoid this by exposing the sleazy behavior of the hustlers’ victims. Indeed, they are men who have been drugged and robbed, but the same men experiencing such a fate have, for example, referred to Destiny, who is Asian American, as “Lucy Liu.” Without legitimizing their criminal actions, Scafaria makes the circumstances that lead Destiny down her dark path understandable. 

Among Scafaria’s more interesting choices is the music that plays over the movie. Rather than predictably resorting to poppy music that would play in clubs, Scafaria includes multiple classical pieces to accompany the story. It is a small aspect of the film that makes it stand out, as it perfectly complements the operatic tone of the story. 

“Hustlers” also benefits from not overutilizing its cast. Appearances by Cardi B and Lizzo are brief but memorable, while more significant supporting turns from Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart diversify the age spectrum of the ensemble. However, the film’s biggest asset is still Lopez’s confident performance, which is no doubt her best. She brings a singular air of sexiness and control to Ramona that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Scafaria’s script certainly helps, as it gives its characters comprehensible motivations for their serious crime, while completely transcending the lunacy of its premise. Wu is serviceable as Destiny, though she is far outshined by Lopez. She really is that good; so much so that I feel the need to end this review, not on a complimentary note to “Hustlers” — which is 100% worth the price of admission, by the way — but on a personal apology to Jennifer Lopez. 

To Ms. Lopez: I am sorry for underestimating you, in spite of my long-standing consciousness of your talent. May you win an Academy Award for your performance in “Hustlers.”