Few films have ever humanized sex workers the way Hustlers does. By doing so, the story, which is inspired by real events, manages to tap into something surprisingly powerful. This is a movie about people who are often looked down upon using the condescension thrown their way to seize a bit of power from the high and mighty. Even when the characters are behaving indefensibly, we empathize because writer/director Lorene Scafaria takes them seriously.

Constance Wu plays Destiny, a young stripper who's having difficulty making enough money because she lacks the confidence to fully entice the clientele. Her fate changes after meeting Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran stripper with enough swagger for the both of them. She mentors Destiny in the art of sexy dancing, as well as giving her tips on how to play upon the psychology of the Wall Street types who frequent the place.

Then the 2008 stock market crash occurs and the sex industry goes with it. Desperate for cash, Ramona comes up with a scheme to rip off the stockbrokers, CFOs, and CEOs who screwed millions of Americans. Her plan entails seducing them, drugging them, and, in their intoxicated state, getting them to max out their credit cards at the club. They cut a deal with the owner to give them a percentage of what the men charge. Before long, Destiny, Ramona, and their friends Annabelle (Lily Reinhart) and Mercedes (Kiki Palmer) are flush with more cash than they know what to do with.

Hustlers shows two different but equally important sides of its characters. We see some of the struggles the women go through. Destiny, for example, has a young daughter and a grandmother who's in debt. Although stripping may seem like a disreputable occupation, it pays the bills and allows them to pursue bigger dreams, like the swimwear line Ramona wants to start. In that regard, the film challenges our preconceived notions of erotic dancers. If the job helps women take care of their families or set themselves up for more mainstream careers, should we demean them for it?

The movie additionally explores the power that Destiny, Ramona, and the others have. Sexual desire, it suggests, is to some degree a weakness in men. Once guys start thinking with their little heads, their big heads turn off. The characters are smart enough to know that. Because we can see how shrewd the women are, watching them take on the dudes whose recklessness harmed so many becomes cathartic. Ramona is dead set on bilking them for every cent they're worth. Destiny, on the other hand, feels there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. This might be the most stunning idea in Hustlers – that sex workers can have more ethics than those guiding our financial institutions.

Jennifer Lopez is a big star, but also one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood. Directors often don't entirely know what to do with her, which has led to getting cast in a lot of lousy movies, like The Back-Up Plan and The Boy Next Door. At her best (Out of Sight, Selena), she's allowed to dive into a character to the point where we forget we're watching Jennifer Lopez. That's the case here. This is one of the best performances of her career. She and Wu – who is similarly outstanding as the vulnerable, somewhat easily-swayed Destiny – create a portrait of a strong friendship that eventually buckles under the weight of the illicit activity they're engaging in.

Plenty of other pleasures can be found. The scheme itself is riveting, and Scafaria gives Hustlers an authentic tone and atmosphere that makes the strip club setting come alive. Palmer and Reinhart are terrific in supporting roles, as are singers Cardi B and Lizzo, who portray fellow strippers. A streak of dark humor is another bonus.

In one scene, Ramona says that the whole country is like a strip club: you're either dancing or throwing money. That, ultimately, is what Hustlers is about. And this fast-paced, immensely entertaining film shows what happens when the people in those roles swap places.

out of four

Hustlers is rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.