Hustlers is Goodfellas. It is, in fact, so very similar to Goodfellas down to some very specific points of overlap that I don't see how it can possibly be an accident: both involve a lot of voice-over explaining how a character went from rags to riches and only had to pay their humanity in order to do it, both have an early scene showily walking us through a major location in a wonderful long tracking shot, both make liberal use of pop music montages that are somewhat more joyful than the grungy scenes stitching them together, in both cases Frankie Valli is one of the pop songs in question. Hustlers even has a scene that directly corresponds, in desperate mood, as well as the editing and cinematography style, to Goodfellas's wonderful "May 11, 1980" sequence.

None of this is a complaint at all, by the way. Lots and lots of films have been fairly direct knock-offs of Goodfellas. Two of them were even directed by Martin Scorsese. And I think there's an extremely strong argument to be made that Hustlers is the very best of any of them. This is, in part, because there's no sense that writer-director Lorene Scafaria - whose career to date does not at all suggest that she had this film inside of her - was mimicking Scorsese just because she could; the story of Hustlers (which is based on true events) just so happens to be a perfect fit for that narrative structure and aesthetic energy, and why bother re-inventing the wheel when you can simply make a really wonderful version of an established wheel, and get it spinning fast as possible.

Anyway, the fact-based story is that in 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu), who has been working at strip clubs for a while without much to show for it, has decided to ply her trade in the heart of New York City, finding a job at a particularly swanky joint that caters to a Wall Street clientele. It's her entrance into this space that is gifted with that exemplary long take, an exhilarating, overwhelming minutes-long blast of color and music, kineticism and bodies. After an unexceptional first night's work, Dorothy hangs out to watch Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club's most popular star, and is bowled over by the older woman's control of the crowd and the almost balletic quality of her dance moves. And this was the point that the film set its hooks in me, never to let go for the remainder of its 110 minutes: Ramona's dance is the polar opposite of that opening tracking shot, a storm of fragmentary shots that break her dance into individual components, expertly timed by editor Kayla Emter to give us a clear sense of the overall movement of the dance, while also letting us see through Dorothy's professional eyes what's so individually transporting about each of Ramona's individual gestures. The contrast between the editing in this dance and everything that has gone on before it is extraordinary: the opening long take isn't repeated, but the film favors long takes that hang out watching the women in the strip club go about the most menial parts of their job. When Ramona dances, the film almost seems to dance with her, abruptly abandoning its realistic aesthetic for something almost impressionistic.

That's pretty much where it spends the rest of its running time, for that matter. Scafaria and her crew - in addition to Emter, cinematographer Todd Banhazl and costume designer Mitchell Travers are doing a particularly substantial amount of work - have done exceptional work tracking Dorothy's emotional journey across the film's seven years, and marking them out with systematic shifts in the look and rhythm of the film on a scene-by-scene basis. As for that journey, part of the fun is watching it happen as she figures it out; the short version is that the financial crash of 2007-'08 interrupts Dorothy (now going by Destiny) and Ramona's fun just as it's getting started, and several years later, they reunite with a new scheme that's just as lucrative and a lot less legal, and we can guess from the framing narrative - Dorothy being interviewed by an openly critical journalist, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) in 2014, about when it all went wrong - that Dorothy's concerns about Ramona's lack of good sense or a sturdy moral compass are well-founded. The interview scenes, by the way, are yet another clearly marked-out element, shot in direct address and in a limited color palette that favors whites that suggest that Dorothy has confession and spiritual expiation on her mind, even if it takes a while before she gives up on trying to glad-hand the journalist.

Anyway, having a systematic style is nice enough, and certainly far more than I expected - so few movies put real thought into their aesthetics these days, though Scafaria's earlier work at least suggests that she cares a bit more about style than her plots demand - but it's not the only thing Hustlers has going on. It's also a superb character study, following Dorothy/Destiny's shifting feelings about her various professions with a great deal of sympathy even when it has no illusions that what she's doing is pretty much awful (this is not at all the fun party-time lark that the advertising promised; like Goodfellas, it's somewhat more interested in the hangover than the drinking, though it doesn't necessarily seem that way for much of its running time). It's also an extremely effective, thoughtful depiction of that one friendship, the one that's both the most uplifting and the most toxic thing in your whole life. The interplay between Dorothy and Ramona is the core of the film, and Wu and Lopez are both extraordinarily good at bringing it to life: Lopez, in particular, is easily doing some of the richest acting of her career, balancing matronly affection for the younger woman with petulant sharpness and just a flicker of something actually dangerous and antisocial (she gets one amazing reaction shot near the end when love and disdain for Dorothy comingle on her face in one of the most interesting facial expressions I've seen in a 2019 movie).

But Wu has to carry far more of the film, while also providing a moral center that Scafaria pointedly refrains from insisting on. There are a few lines that push us to situate this in the very particular context of the financial collapse and the subsequent bailout, but the film mostly keeps the focus on its characters, and allows to reflect on the society around them as much or as little as we'd like. The title Hustlers has at least a few different resonances, some of them more pointedly broad-scale than others, but the big one, I think, is that it's about hustling for money: all of the little choices and small actions we have to perform in order to keep moving forward in a hostile world. It's more than a little like fellow stripper movie Magic Mike in that respect: it's very fascinated by processes, whether they're how strippers work, how economics work, or anything else of that nature. And in that respect, it's about people trying to survive the ravages of capitalism. But it really cares about that mostly in terms of individual characters' lives: this isn't a political treatise, but a yarn about one woman's attempts to thrive in the face of adversity, with a little help from her friends, and a willingness to compromise her values from time to time. It's culturally resonant, it's sometimes completely hilarious, it's routinely beautiful, and it's always one of the most tightly-edited films of the year; but mostly, it's philosophical, looking its protagonist in the eye, declaring "I don't always agree with you, but I understand you", and inviting us to do the same. It's a remarkable film all told, energetic and witty, but above all humane.