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‘Hustlers’ slickly strips down a real-life crime to sisterhood and glitter-covered hilarity

Jennifer Lopez does her best work in years, but it’s Constance Wu who anchors the story with a grounded and natural performance.

Lili Reinhart (from left), Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu star in “Hustlers.”
STXfilms

Just about everybody’s a hustler in “Hustlers,” from the strippers coaxing customers into buying more lap dances, to the club managers who gouge the dancers for a huge cut of their earnings, to the traders and investment bankers who literally throw money at the dancers and treat them like commodities.

So, when the crash of 2008 empties out the clubs and leaves the dancers working minimum wage jobs while the big-money guys survive unscathed, can you blame the dancers when they decide to milk these guys for thousands of dollars?

Well. They ARE spiking the marks’ drinks and then robbing them, which makes them criminals, so there’s that.

Based on the true story of a group of strippers who cultivated a roster of wealthy, hard-partying clients and then drugged them and ran up enormous tabs on their credit cards, “Hustlers” is slick and sharp and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, with writer-director Lorene Scafaria delivering a film that often feels like Scorsese Lite — a breezier, infinitely less violent, pole-dancing, glitter-covered riff on “Goodfellas.”

Constance Wu’s Destiny provides the Henry Hill-esque narration. Well-placed pop classics such as “Night Moves” by Bob Seger and “Rag Doll” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons fill the soundtrack. Long tracking shots abound. There’s even a dark-comic driving sequence in which an unconscious man suddenly wakes up.

I half-expected Destiny to say, “After a while, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime …”

Not that writer-director Scafaria doesn’t give the film her own distinctive stamp, from the crackling good screenplay to some creatively conceived montages to some nifty audio touches.

The year is 2007. Destiny, a new hire at a Manhattan strip club, is mesmerized when she sees the legendary Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) commanding the stage with such power and grace, she’s almost covered in money at the end of the performance and receives a standing ovation from the crowd.

Destiny finds Ramona on the roof of the club, wearing a fur coat, perched like a queen. Ramona invites Destiny to get warm and takes the new girl under her wing.

The loving but increasingly complicated big sister/little sister dynamic between Ramona and Destiny is the most important relationship in the story, and Lopez and Wu are absolutely terrific together.

From time to time we flash forward a half-dozen years, with Julia Stiles’ journalist interviewing Destiny, whose recollections provide the set-up for the flashback sequences. (“Hustlers” is based on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores.”)

There’s a strong sense of backstage sisterhood at the club, whether the dancers are engaging in frank and funny talk about their sex lives or supporting one another through the latest drama. And for one brief, champagne-soaked moment, Ramona and Destiny and their fellow dancers (including Keke Palmer’s Mercedes and Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle) are raking in the money and having the time of their lives, with the highlight coming when Usher (played by Usher) stops by one night and every stripper in the club takes the stage at the same time.

A few years later, after the financial crisis, Destiny is a single, unemployed mother of a toddler and Ramona is working at Old Navy — and that’s when Ramona hatches a plan in which they’ll reach out to their richest clients from back in the day, invite them (one at a time) to meet for a drink, lace the drink with a knockout concoction, and run up tabs in the thousands.

When the guy sees that massive charge to his account, what’s he going to do? Tell his wife? Call the police and admit he’s been fleeced by strippers?

It’s the perfect crime. Until it’s not. Mistakes are made, loyalties shatter, and reporters and cops get wind of stories like the tabloid-perfect tale of a wealthy architect who was fleeced of more than $100,000.

Jennifer Lopez is getting Oscar buzz for her fierce and foul-mouthed and screen-commanding work here, and indeed it’s her strongest performance (and the best role she’s been given) since “Out of Sight” some two decades ago.

But Constance Wu is the true lead in this film, as the story is told through Destiny’s eyes, Destiny’s memories, and it’s Wu’s grounded and natural performance that resonated the most with me. What with Wu’s hilarious work on the TV series “Fresh Off the Boat,” her leading lady movie star turn in “Crazy Rich Asians” and now this memorable serio-comic performance, it’s clear she can do just about anything.