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The Distaff Con Is On

Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway
 93 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByChris Addison
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson    
The Hustle

In the best con games, the mark never sees what’s coming until it’s too late. In the best con game movies, the audience never sees what’s coming until after the filmmakers have successfully pulled it off. In one respect, the new comedy, The Hustle, is a successful con game movie, because the audience doesn’t realize until too late that they’re the ones who have been duped into paying good money for an inept remake of two superior movies.


The Hustle is a remake of the 1988 Michael Caine/Steve Martin film, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was itself a remake of a 1964 David Niven/Marlon Brando movie, Bedtime Story. The plot of The Hustle plays much like a condensed version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with one major exception. This time around, the con artists are women, and their unsuspecting targets are men. As Anne Hathaway, who plays the Michael Caine role of Josephine, puts it, women are better con artists then men are because men always underestimate them: “No man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is.” Unfortunately, all that The Hustle demonstrates is that women who look like Anne Hathaway can bamboozle men with their obvious charms, something they have been doing for centuries, whether smarter than men or not.


As in the earlier movie, Josephine is an established con artist in a resort town on the French Riviera. She is easily able to distract, rob, and dupe a variety of lecherous older men and has the local chief of police (female, this go-around) on her payroll. Her comfortable lifestyle is disrupted by the arrival of Penny (Rebel Wilson) a fourth-rate Australian grafter (by way of the United States). Josephine is worried that the newcomer may botch up her crude grifts badly enough to attract attention from police who can’t be bought off. Josephine first attempts to persuade Penny to leave town for fear that one of her attempted marks was really a Russian mobster, but when Penny figures out what’s really going on, she persuades Josephine to tutor her in the art of con artistry.


The two manage to pull off a few minor cons but eventually have another falling out. To prove which of them is the better con artist, they bet on which of them can first fleece Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp), a visiting high tech billionaire. He would seem to be the perfect mark, a shy, gullible young geek who invented a hugely popular app (this particular plotline obviously wasn’t around in 1988). The two adopt vastly different strategies to dupe Thomas. Penny pretends to be blind and that she needs money for a delicate operation to restore her eyesight. Josephine, on the other hand, claims to be Penny’s treating physician and tries to ingratiate herself with Thomas in other ways.


The payoff of The Hustle is almost precisely the same as occurred in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, as are the tactics both women use (although Steve Martin pretended to be crippled instead of blind). In fact, most of the earlier bits of business are practically the same in both movies. The reason for the striking similarity is relatively obvious if you look at the script credits. Three of the four credited screenwriters of The Hustle are the writers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (two of whom have been dead for many years). So, it’s a fair bet that the gender-reversal gimmick and all the updated material (smartphone apps and the internet weren’t around in 1988) were the contributions of Jac Schaeffer, whose best-known previous credit was Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, the misbegotten short that had the indignity of being pulled from accompanying Coco. It’s no surprise, therefore, that all the humor in The Hustle emanates from scenes that were in the original movie.


The funniest sequence in The Hustle, as in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is a con that Josephine dubs “The Lord of the Rings.” In it, she persuades a wealthy older man (well played by Dean Norris) to propose, then reveals her “family” secret, a psycho sister (who, naturally, is Penny). The shocked fiancé flees, leaving a valuable piece of jewelry behind. It was funny 30 years ago, it was funny in the Broadway musical, and it’s funny now. And it works because it’s one of the few scenes that allow Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson to play to their acting strengths.


Sadly, in much of the rest of the film, the pair appear quite miscast. Hathaway’s British accent is hit and miss, more miss than hit, and she substitutes cleavage and sex appeal for genuine charm. Rebel Wilson certainly throws herself into her role with lots of pratfalls, rarely comic, and ridiculously over-the-top attempts at blindness that are neither believable nor funny. Worst of all, neither actress is convincing for a minute as a con artist. Michael Caine has a fistful of swindler roles on his resume, dating back to Alfie, and, while Steve Martin’s character was intentionally clumsy, the facility for con artistry is still noticeable in his performance (he was quite convincing as a serious conman in David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner). By contrast, Hathaway and Wilson seem more interested in the silliness in which they get involved than in being successful con artists.


Part of the reason that The Hustle isn’t successful is a difference in the way that the screenplay paints their characters. Caine and Martin were, in the vernacular of the time, cads, somewhat charming but only interested in the wealthy heiresses they duped for their money. The victims may have been gullible, but they weren’t mean-spirited. Now, the men who wind up getting duped are often creepy lechers of one type or another who, in a #MeToo era, are merely getting their just desserts. While one could certainly make a movie on this basis, the entire structure of The Hustle works against this interpretation.


Ironically, just last summer, Anne Hathaway was part of an ensemble cast of a film about female con artists that essentially redid an earlier movie with an all-male team. That movie, of course, was Oceans 8, in which the big surprise was the nature of Hathaway’s character, who initially seemed a mark but wound up being part of the crew. Here, there are no real surprises, no intricate planning, and no real chemistry among the actors. Occasionally a bit of genuine funny business from the earlier movie surfaces, and a couple of the supporting performances are amusing, but The Hustle lacks even the slightest bit of credibility for the most part. Instead of con artist comedy, it’s silly slapstick about people who seem as if they are pretending to be con artists. The real con job here is on the audience.  

In this clip, Rebel Wilson asks Anne Hathaway for help in becoming a better con artist.

Read other reviews of The Hustle: 

The Hustle (2019) on IMDb