In the opening to The Hustle, Anne Hathaway introduces us to a fun world in the south of France. All you see are layers of deception, dressed up in glitz and glam. That’s the movie I signed up for. Unfortunately, this gender-swapped remake of a remake hews too close to its predecessors, afraid to bring something new and different to the table. It’s a shame, because most of what’s new and different is funny, and even a bit subversive, like the quack doctor plot or Rebel Wilson’s fake boob scam. It is what people will likely be coming to see—there’s just not enough of it.
In the sleepy Mediterranean resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is an experienced con woman with everyone on her payroll, from the bellhops to the local police chief (who is also maybe her girlfriend? Unclear). An uncouth and unkempt small-time American con woman named Penny (Rebel Wilson) barrels in and threatens to knock this entire ecosystem out of whack, so Josephine teaches her some high-end tricks of the trade. They make a bet: whoever can get $500,000 from a given mark gets to keep the territory. The other has to leave town.
The chemistry between the two stars is a natural draw, and Hathaway brings more of the physical comedy than one might expect. She’s smart to once again send up her public persona with a grifter who alternates between the caricature that the Hath-a-haters made her out to be and a delicious wish-fulfilment scene-stealer in designer sunglasses and a host of silk robes.
While Hathaway is playing Michael Caine’s Brit from the 1988 movie, she has Steve Martin’s double-breasted everything, and even a nod toward the late great Glenne Headly’s Janet with an alias and one particular haircut. The Hustle makes a point of a gendered take on con artistry and then does nothing with it. It even implies that women con artists are a rarity, though the Summer of Scam setup of her business operations begs to differ. While Scoundrels was a comedic playground for the male leads, it had plenty of gender commentary and some real class-based bite that’s missing from this largely de-fanged iteration.
If you had no prior knowledge of Steve Martin and Michael Caine’s antics in the ‘80s or the Tony Award-winning musical adaptation, the marketing sold this movie as a fun con caper about women who swindle men who treat other women poorly by exploiting their sexism and gendered expectations. Unfortunately, The Hustle never quite makes good on that promise. The first act comes the closest, with Josephine’s professional scams and the training sequences providing plenty of laughs, but things dive quickly into a bet fixated on one man in particular. In order to follow the premise of the prior films, he’s a bit of a sweet dope, taking out any of the glee we had, say, watching Penny trick Jonah from Veep into giving her money for her fake sister’s fake boobs.
There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene where Josephine references different archetypes of men (“the white knight”) and the cons to which they’re most susceptible to. Instead of cutting to show Penny and Josephine carrying these out and continuing with more examples, The Hustle chooses to spend most of its non-bet con artistry minutes on the same con over and over with diminishing returns.
Some of the best moments are when The Hustle mines the specificity of its premise for humor, like the gag in the trailer where a shiny dress enables Rebel Wilson’s character to camouflage herself among trash bags. While I can appreciate watching Wilson’s take on “Ruprecht” from the movie I loved as a kid, it’s much funnier to wait for the penny to drop as she and Hathaway put their own spin on the concept of Prima Nocte (suck it, Tony Stark.)
If you’ve watched the other movies, you know how this one ends, too. I won’t spoil it, but let me say this: that was another opportunity for The Hustle to innovate beyond its forebears and give audiences something special. The end result doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given Penny’s ethos and what the movie’s seems to be. Nor does it feel anywhere near as revelatory as it did when it happened in the reverse in the prior two movies. In a movie predicated on the thrill of the con, why not add a new twist to bring a more provocative ending that would also support the rest of the narrative?
A few jokes also run a bit afoul—it’s odd to have Wilson knock Hathaway for being near menopause when Wilson (who’s known for bending reality about her age) is actually two years older. It also hurts my pop culture brain to hear an American in a fake British accent bend over backwards to make a flat “Real Housewives of Essex” joke when TOWIE is not only a real show, but one that Americans have access to. Rebel Wilson does her usual schtick of every worst stereotype about fat people, and while it’s not as egregious as some other roles, it still feels like a bit of a crutch and her least funny material here.
This light and breezy by-the-numbers remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, itself a remake of Bedtime Story, feels like a whole lot of wasted potential. It’s a perfectly good airplane movie and plenty of other passable movies starring men have bobbed along pleasantly, so I’m not looking forward to the vitriol this has already started to draw. The Hustle isn’t bad, but what’s the point of gender-swapping a classic if you’re not going to run with it?