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'Hustlers' works overtime, as strippers turn to crime

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By Brian Lowry, CNN

"Hustlers" incorporates a lot of powerful themes, with women using their sexuality to fleece men, in the process striking a blow for the working class against Wall Street fat cats. At its core, though, is a solid caper movie rooted in the challenges associated with running any criminal enterprise -- a more modest version of "Goodfellas," with less blood, and more skin.

Jennifer Lopez is among the producers of the film, which counts a number of high-profile entertainers -- including hip-hop stars Cardi B and Lizzo -- in its cast. Foremost, though, "Hustlers" is a showcase for Constance Wu, the star of "Crazy Rich Asians," who serves as the narrator/guide to this seedy world, in which the 2008 financial crash provides the impetus for a criminal scheme with Robin Hood-esque overtones.

Based on a true story chronicled in New York magazine, "Hustlers" focuses on a group of exotic dancers in New York who began drugging their customers, running up vast tabs on the men's credit cards that their marks were too embarrassed to pursue. Of course, the fact we're watching a movie means they didn't entirely get away with it, but it's still fascinating to see how they sustained the plot.

Destiny (Wu) is the new gal at the strip club when she first meets Lopez's Ramona, a confident pro who takes Destiny under her wing.

"This is a story about control," Destiny recalls in flashback, as the Janet Jackson song "Control" plays when Ramona is introduced, just to underscore the point. After a number of fits and starts, Ramona's "fishing" to lure big-money patrons to the clubs evolves into the notion of chemically assisting that process, with help from a couple of key confederates (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart), and eventually an expanding crew.

"They never get in any trouble," Ramona mutters about guys who saunter in like they own the place, before realizing that those masters of the universe can absorb nightly sprees where thousands of dollars vanish, which becomes easier to achieve once they've consumed a sprinkle of the gals' "special recipe."

As in "Goodfellas," Wu's character leads us through the machinations of the story, recounting what happened in an interview with a reporter (Julia Stiles). Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, the movie derives much of its suspense from what Destiny calls "unpredictable strangers," as the women risk taking down unfamiliar targets as Ramona -- with the money rolling in -- greedily widens their net.

Although the movie begins with what amounts to the psychology of stripping -- from looking for wedding rings to finding other weaknesses and tics to exploit -- "Hustlers" is as much about its central friendship, one tested as Destiny and Ramona experience various highs and lows. Both actresses are terrific -- to the notable exclusion of practically everyone else -- with Lopez garnering awards buzz for what feels like a supporting role, while Wu's graduation from TV sitcom to movie stardom is pretty near complete.

As noted, "Hustlers" raises a whole lot of meaty issues, built around turning the tables on a power hierarchy that favors rich, privileged men. At the same time, there's an underlying tension that, as much as some of these guys might appear to deserve being taken, it's only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt.

The biggest challenge facing "Hustlers" might have to do with expectations, since the marketing doesn't fully capture the movie's more nuanced aspects, while much of the advance coverage seems enamored with Lopez's pole-dancing workouts. Those that do fork over money to see it, however, shouldn't walk away feeling fleeced.

"Hustlers" premieres Sept. 13 in the US. It's rated R.