The Hustle (2019)
Release Date: May 10, 2019 (Wide)
A female-led redux of the 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin farce “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” itself already a remake of 1964’s “Bedtime Story” with Marlon Brando and David Niven, “The Hustle” is at least a tad more inspired than its bland, forgettable title. It should be noted that the original working title, “Nasty Women,” was a better (and more relevant) one and more in line with this remake’s gender swap and throughline of men fearing and underestimating smart, clever women. Such a title change would seem like a merely cosmetic criticism, but it’s really emblematic of a sharper comedy having its teeth pulled. Director Chris Addison and screenwriter Jac Schaeffer, reworking the script by Dale Launer who reworked the original script by Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning, do flirt with a more subversive feminist bent, only to slavishly follow “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” scene for scene with a few contemporary additions (social media and Venmo) and a minor third-act switcheroo that it’s too bad the script didn’t color outside the lines more. For the mild, hit-and-miss amusement that is offered in "The Hustle," it is a testament to Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson who hustle hard to find laughs where they can get them.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, even in a 2019 remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with women: a British-accented Anne Hathaway gets the posh Michael Caine role and Rebel Wilson is in the corresponding bull-in-a-china-shop Steve Martin role. Wilson’s Penny Rust is a low-level Australian grifter who catfishes gullible, pathetic men in New York City for their money, but once she’s nearly caught, Penny books it to the French Riviera, beginning her first scam by using a stock photo of a busty, blonde woman to spin a story about her sister being kidnapped and in need of ransom money. Hathaway’s Josephine Chesterfield is a more sophisticated operator who has made the south of France her turf to con men. Though she has two employees (Ingrid Oliver, Nicholas Woodeson) working for her, Josephine works alone, until Penny gets in her way. When Josephine thinks she’s put Penny back on a plane and reclaimed her territory, Penny ends up staying, as she’s ready to step up her game. The two con artists team up for a while, as Josephine lands the mark, strategizing that all men love to be heroes to a vulnerable woman, and Penny helps drive them away but not before making sure the men leave behind a high-cost engagement ring. Ready to call it quits on each other, Josephine and Penny both set their sights on unassuming tech millionaire Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) and compete for his affections. Whoever can out-swindle him out of $500,000 wins, and the loser has to get out of town. May the best con win.
Besides opening with the kind of delightful animated title sequence that seems to have been lost since the ‘80s, “The Hustle” starts off on shaky ground but improves a bit past its half-hour mark. Even if the situations adhere so closely to what came before and pale in comparison, it comes down to the stars being game and bouncing off one another. Anne Hathaway works her beguiling coolness as Josephine, and she is most amusing when putting on different identities and accents, whether it’s a simple, giggly, lottery-winning American or a German doctor with severely unorthodox therapy methods. Coming off her standout part in 2018’s gender-flipped spin-off “Ocean’s Eight” as a vapid but smarter-than-she-lets-on socialite, Hathaway clearly relishes the part of a powerful schemer and reminds how terrific she can be when performing comedy. Rebel Wilson feels a bit unchallenged here as Penny, coasting on her brassiest-person-in-the-room persona, but she is still more than capable of wringing laughs out of her physical antics, deadpan delivery, and improvisational skills, particularly when Penny pretends to suffer from hysterical blindness to earn Thomas’ trust and sympathy. As the earnest, impossibly wide-eyed Thomas, relative newcomer Alex Sharp (2017’s “To the Bone”) is charming, but there’s also an edge to him that makes the inevitable double-crossing not come out of nowhere.
Always on the cusp of earning bigger laughs but settling for sporadically amusing, “The Hustle” is a breezy, undemanding diversion for both anyone who has and hasn’t seen Frank Oz’s 1988 film, but it shouldn’t have been this tepid. The scenes involving Josephine’s “Lord of the Rings” scam, where Penny must play Josephine’s homely, locked-away, mentally ill sister named Hortense who sees herself as a fairy princess in order to secure diamond rings from a series of men, are more flat and strained than funny and certainly inferior to when Steve Martin performed the same ruse playing an overgrown toddler. There’s also little sense in why a montage is set up to have Penny practice her knife-throwing and scaling a hurdle, only for those skills to never come in handy. The freshest joke is a random throwaway sight gag of the back-and-forth of an airplane lavatory’s “vacant” and “occupied” sign, as well as Penny wearing a black leather dress that helps her camouflage herself next to a bunch of trash bags. It seems inspiration was low on the priority list after casting the two ingratiating stars as comedic foils because the switching of genders doesn't much change the fact that this material was done better the first and second time. Come to think of it, “The Hustle” was smarter and more wickedly funny when it was called “Heartbreakers,” an underappreciated 2001 mother-daughter con comedy with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Grade: C +