Riding in on the wave of gender-swapped remakes, The Hustle is a comedy whose timing is late in every sense of the word. Based on the 1988 film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is itself a remake of 1964 Bedtime Story, The Hustle attempts to reboot the story of two wildly different con artists for the modern age with a female-led cast, but instead ends up feeling painfully out of date. Fat jokes and gay digs run amok in a film that is barely saved by the sparkling chemistry of its duo, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, who do their best with a film that scams you out of your time.
The Hustle centers around two female con artists, one a sophisticated and skilled socialite, Josephine (Hathaway), who scams wealthy men out of their wives’ jewels; the other a crass but cunning small-timer, Lonnie (Wilson), who takes advantage of men through dating apps. After a run-in on a train in which Lonnie easily scams dinner out of a rich man with a sob story about her hot sister, Josephine runs her own con against Lonnie to shut out the competition. But the bullish Lonnie gets wise to her act, and blackmails Josephine into training her in her methods to step up her game. However, that unlikely partnership soon turns into a rivalry as the two dramatically different con artists clash, and they strike up a bet to target a hapless tech millionaire and find out who is the best hustler.
Directed by Chris Addison in his feature debut, the film is a breezy hour and a half, aided by the use of several entertaining montages and Hathaway and Wilson’s delightful chemistry. Hathaway has frequently found herself playing the uptight straight man in these odd-couple comedies, so it’s refreshing to see her add some flair to the archetype in The Hustle, in which she affects a vague British accent and swans around in velvet suits and silk kimonos. It’s a near self-aware performance that dresses down the typical characteristics of the suave sophisticate. She even allows herself to descend into a cattiness that leads to some of the funniest moments of the movie. But while Hathaway is doing something bizarre and bold with her role, Wilson is relegated to being the butt of fat jokes, made all the more disappointing after her recent comedy Isn’t It Romantic managed to mostly avoid those pitfalls. Though Wilson is game for physical comedy and self-deprecating digs, the multiple jokes about salads and Wilson’s appearance get old fast. It would be nice to think that studio comedies have moved past this regressive humor, but The Hustle feels like a film that was made to be released 10 years ago.
Despite the drawbacks with Wilson’s character, she and Hathaway are dynamite onscreen. Their budding friendship and rivalry are incredibly fun to watch, as the pair of them engage in increasingly ridiculous shenanigans to outdo the other.
Sadly, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to Hathaway and Wilson’s unlikely partnership. Every other supporting character is a flat stereotype (there’s a particularly bad bit involving the “Housewives of Essex”), with the exception of their tech millionaire mark Thomas (Alex Sharp), whose goofily endearing personality wears down Lonnie’s tough persona. There is a warmth to their interactions which admittedly do play off sincerely — though a third act twist throws a wrench in all of those genuine emotions.
For all its messaging about women turning the tables on men who have underestimated and belittled them, The Hustle has a strangely hollow approach to feminism. Josephine and Lonnie target men because they’re easy marks, not out of some sense of justice — which makes them just as bad as the hustlers of the 1988 and 1964 films. That in and of itself is all fine and good, because women are complicated and not always acting for the better good of their gender. But for a film that revolves so heavily around women who beat men at their own game, the gender dynamics of this film are cartoonishly simple. Men are buffoons, but the women outside of Josephine and Lonnie are not much better. And ultimately, Josephine and Lonnie are taken to task for their own ideas.
The Hustle is a muddled and regressive comedy that is not for want of laughs. But it’s for want of any meaning that makes it more than a forgettable comedy that watch on Netflix before instantly pushing it out of your mind. Hathaway and Wilson try their best to salvage the film, but in the end, it feels like a long con.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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