You might think feeling swindled after a movie titled The Hustle is appropriate, but I assure you it isn’t. The gender-flipped remake of 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, itself a remake of 1964 film Bedtime Story, stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson as con-artists who use their feminine wiles to scam dim-witted men out of their money. There’s potential here, quite a lot of it, but the only thing The Hustle steals away with is 90 minutes of time you’ll wish to get back.
The problems begin early on in a woefully unfunny introduction to Wilson’s character, Penny Rust. Dressed in a trashy black leather dress, she arrives at a bar where she’s to meet a date (Veep‘s Timothy Simons), only to instantly see disappointment in his face when he looks at her. There are reasons for this, starting with the fact her profile picture was very clearly NOT her, but what Penny decides in that moment is she’s going to con this guy out of his money by claiming it’s to help her friend get a boob job. Ugh. What the scene actually does is establish Penny as undesirable, which is pretty much how she’s portrayed for the entire movie.
Hearing of a supposed hotbed of rich easily-duped guys in the French Riviera town of Beaumont-Sur-Mer, Penny hops a train and while scamming another guy out of dinner, catches the eye of Josephine (Hathaway), an upper-class British con who has the territory on lockdown. Sensing a potential threat, Josephine takes Penny under her wing in hopes of driving her away. Instead, they end up embroiled in a competition to see who can scam a dopey tech genius Thomas (Alex Sharp, somehow ALWAYS miscast) out of his newly-earned fortune. Whoever wins gets to stay in Beaumont-Sur-Mer where she can continue taking all of the male tourists for their money.
While nobody is expecting fine art out of The Hustle, the script is simply too lazy to ignore. Penny invents a case of hysterical blindness to attract Thomas’ sympathies in hopes he’ll give her $500K to undergo treatment. Penny parries her by portraying the doctor who has the only cure, which she can provide for the same amount. The art of the con isn’t something you bumble through, but there’s rarely a moment when either Josephine or Penny appears qualified to trick a schoolboy out of his lunch money, much less a millionaire out of his fortune. Fortunately for both ladies, the script, which is credited to four writers somehow, doesn’t write anybody with enough intelligence to ask even the most basic questions. In a ridiculous montage of a series of cons called “Lord of the Rings”, Josephine plays a bankrupt heiress who scams rich men by getting them to propose to her, only to then introduce them to her ugly troll of a sister, Penny naturally, who is locked away in an underground prison. These guys simply flee and leave millions of dollars of engagement rings behind. Not only does this crap insult the audience’s intelligence, but the mean-spirited nature of the gag once again paints Penny as low class and hideous.
Maybe it’s the aforementioned army of writers but something has been lost in the movie’s messaging. When asked why women make the best cons, Josephine replies confidently, “Because no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is.” This was the crucial point made at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, when Michael Caine and Steve Martin’s characters were ultimately upended by Glenn Headley’s character. But The Hustle treats its female characters like villains, and in the case of Penny like she’s an idiot. Worse, Josephine’s message gets steamrolled on enough occasions to make us wonder why they remade this movie from a female perspective at all. Individual scenes elicit a few laughs, but few connect in the way we’d expect from a film with this much talent involved.
While the script and Chris Addison’s flat direction do nobody any favors, Hathaway and Wilson do their best with what they’ve got. Hathaway has played her fair share of grifters (Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, last year’s Ocean’s 8) and has the attitude down, even if her British accent is unbelievably awful. Wilson spends most of her time falling over things, accidentally hitting people with things, breaking things, occasionally eating French fries from a toilet; she’s better than that at this point, but still quite good at what she’s called to do. She’s naturally funny without having to play a boorish oaf all of the time, as we saw recently in rom-com Isn’t It Romantic.
The Hustle should’ve been an easy score, but all it proves is simply casting women in roles previously played by men isn’t enough. The actresses and the audience are deserving of more.