Don't Fall for the Con
The Hustle, a comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, is an almost identical remake of the 1988 classic comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin -- itself a remake of Marlon Brando’s Bedtime Story. I say “almost” because they’ve gender-flipped the lead roles and applied a few cosmetic updates to the script here and there. But other than that, this is the same movie.
Well, not actually. Though I’ve not revisited that Frank Oz-directed comedy since it hit theaters back in the day – or maybe a time or two on VHS in the ‘90s, I recall it being an extremely enjoyable romp featuring the enviable chemistry and comedic timing of a pair of funnymen operating at the top of their game. It was funny, breezy, and just a blast to watch. Sadly, the same can’t be said about this lazy slog of a film that seems more interested in conning us out of our money than it does making us laugh.
And no, the film’s problems have nothing to do with the much-publicized controversy around Hollywood’s current fetish with gender-swapping and diversification and has everything to do with the lazy script, poor direction, sloppy execution, and the fact that director Chris Addison doesn’t know when -- or how -- to pull back the reins on his lead actress, Rebel Wilson.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Wilson in most of her roles. She is absolutely fearless and can oftentimes carry a film that might otherwise fall flat on its face (see Isn’t It Romantic). But her most successful films tend to be the ones in which she is a bit player, the comedic foil, if you will. In this case, The Hustle is Rebel Wilson’s film, and there’s hardly a scene in which she isn’t falling down, taking a shot to the crotch, falling through doors, or otherwise mugging to a camera that loses interest 15 minutes into the film. She is listed as the film’s producer, so perhaps Addison felt compelled to avoid pushing back, or maybe no one realized during filming what was happening. Regardless, the fact remains that The Hustle isn’t a very good film, mostly because Wilson goes way too far over the top with unfunny bits that fall flat more often than she does.
In The Hustle, Wilson is low-rent Australian con artist Penny Rust, who is ruthless in her profession but also has a big heart. Content with pulling off small-time scams on poor unsuspecting saps, her exploits lead her to the French Riviera (don’t ask) where she meets the sophisticated and seemingly aristocratic con artist Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway), who plies her craft on a much higher class of clientele. When the two realize the town isn’t big enough for both of them, they reach an agreement: whoever scams a particularly charming high-dollar mark named Thomas (newcomer Alex Sharp) from his money first, wins; the loser must leave town.
Rebel Wilson isn’t the only problem with The Hustle. There’s also that pesky script and its numerous foundational insufficiencies. In an attempt to modernize and distance itself from the blatant sexism in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (keep in mind that men taking advantage of women was still fashionable in the ‘80s), The Hustle eschews the central idea that men are motivated by sex and replaces it with the flimsy catalyst that all men just want to be heroes. So Josephine leans heavily into the damsel-in-distress technique to gain the confidence of Thomas. We wouldn’t want to insinuate that women would use sex with men to gain their confidence, now would we? Yet, we sit baffled when Josephine and Penny’s scheme to fleece Thomas out of 500 grand turns into a race to see who can sleep with him first. The about-face is stunning.
And let’s not even get into the chemistry between Hathaway and Wilson which is tepid at best and nonexistent at worst. Hathaway’s German (?) accent sounds horrid, the costumes are cheap and uninspired, and the streamlined plot seems like a monotonous exercise in patience. Nearly everything about the film is off. Don’t fall for the con! The Hustle is trying to swindle you out of 12 bucks.
(Released by MGM and rated “PG-13” on appeal for crude sexual content and language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.