'The Hustle': Film Review

A funny-enough retread full of missed opportunities.
5/10/2019

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson star in a gender-flipped version of the story many moviegoers know as 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.'

Those of us who love Frank Oz's 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, an elegant dance between the suave and the stupid in which Michael Caine and Steve Martin play con men on the Mediterranean coast — guess which one's suave? — have no cause to be indignant that filmmakers have remade it. Scoundrels, after all, was a remake of 1964's Bedtime Story, starring David Niven and Marlon Brando. And The Hustle, directed by Chris Addison, promises to reimagine the nature of high-stakes swindling by having women (the well-cast Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson) be the fraudsters, exploiting, as Hathaway's character puts it, men's inability to imagine that a woman is cleverer than they are.

Alas, those looking for a sharply feminist reinvention of this tale will have to wait another couple of decades. The Hustle is a beat-for-beat Scoundrels copy in which plot points are slavishly reproduced, almost never varying from the last iteration unless technological advances or the changed gender of the protagonists requires it. Though the 55-year-old plot's bones are sturdy and its new performers gifted, moviegoers hoping for a mercilessly funny post-Weinstein revenge fantasy (its poster declares: "They're giving dirty rotten men a run for their money") will walk away feeling conned.

After introducing the refined half of this pair — Hathaway's Josephine Chesterfield, who bilks billionaires in the fictional resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer with the help of corrupt police chief Brigitte Desjardins (Ingrid Oliver) — the film puts her on a train where she meets her opposite. Wilson's Penny Rust is a two-bit grifter, catfishing dudes online and roping them into funding medical procedures for a hot "sister" whose image she probably swiped from Instagram.

Josephine steers Penny further down the coast toward Portofino, not wanting this vulgar cheat to ruin Beaumont-sur-Mer. (Jac Schaeffer copy-pastes the previous film's quip — "a poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare big game away" — without wondering whether this stylish modern woman would speak in hunting metaphors.) But Rust does what a bad Penny will: She winds up back on Josephine's turf, ready to upset the ecosystem.

Those who know Scoundrels can plot out the scenes to come, in which Josephine agrees to teach Penny the art of the high-class con, and they may be happier with their imagined version of the update. (Though it must be said that Josephine's mod wardrobe, a highlight of the pic, is far more entertaining than the aristocrat's suits Caine wore.) This film's puttin'-on-the-ritz training montage has puzzling, unsatisfying twists (why is Josephine teaching her student to throw knives at targets?). And its take on the scam in which men who want to marry Josephine are introduced at the last minute to her "special" sister (and scared off so quickly they leave pricey engagement rings behind) is a dud.

Things pick up substantially when the two women have a falling out and, agreeing that one town isn't big enough for both of them, make a bet: Whichever can milk $500,000 out of a designated dupe first can stay.

In Scoundrels, the target was a supposed soap-company heiress played with sweet earnestness by the late Glenne Headly. Here, it's Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp), a clumsy twentysomething in a hoodie who has invented a hit app. (Imagine Mark Zuckerberg, then imagine him being likable.) Both women put Thomas in their sights, but are surprised to find him totally lacking the lust and egotism that have made their other marks so easy to manipulate.

In the battle over Thomas, we get something more than a replication of the previous film's sneaky sabotage: Hustle's biggest laughs come from the insults Penny lobs at Josephine during this contest, most of them targeting her sex appeal or snobbishness.

Is it screwed up that, in a movie presenting itself as this one does, the only new jokes with bite are those in which one woman tears another down? One suspects that Wilson, a producer on the film who has written much of her material in the past, plugged several of these put-downs in well after the pic was underway. Nobody would fault her for adding laughs to a comedy. But how might a femme-centric con film have been reinvented if she'd been the scribe, instead of one man adapting a script by another man who was adapting the work of two other men? Maybe that would've been something to justify returning for a third take on a premise that, back in 1988, was already charmingly and self-consciously antiquated.

Production companies: Cave 76, Camp Sugar
Distributor: MGM
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver, Nicholas Woodeson
Director: Chris Addison
Screenwriters: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, Jac Schaeffer
Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Rebel Wilson
Executive producers: Ilona Herzberg, Dale Launer, Charles Hirschhorn, Alison Owen
Director of photography: Michael Coulter
Production designer: Alice Normington
Costume designer: Emma Fryer
Editor: Ant Boys
Composer: Anne Dudley
Casting director:

Rated PG-13, 93 minutes