A nearly beat-for-beat remake of Frank Oz’s 1988 comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” Chris Addison’s flimsy “The Hustle” attempts to jazz up an old-fashioned premise with a contemporary twist: what if said scoundrels were actually women? The gender-swapping conceit may be a transparent bid for modern relevance, but it’s one of the few things that actually works about the chintzy comedy. Partially guided by a winking injection of nutso girl power — the film’s leading ladies don’t just like money, they also really like bilking bad men out of it — the swap at least affords Addison a pair of knockout stars.
In this version of the fizzy con-man (sorry, con-woman) story, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson take the lead as a pair of mismatched smooth talkers who are forced to team up (and then break up) as they giddily rob scores of men who have the misfortune of crossing the duo’s path. While both Hathway and Wilson pour on the humor, “The Hustle” isn’t up to the task of giving them a rich enough world to play in, and even their full-throttle performances can’t save a cheap movie about wily people.
Penny (Wilson) is a low-level hustler we first meet smack in the middle of a scam, having catfished an open-shirted bro (Timothy Simons, whose agent must be lauded for getting him into the opening credit crawl despite the actor only appearing in a single scene) in what appears to be one of many similar cons. Penny’s work is simple, and happily plays on the weaknesses of dumb men: she engages them in chatter (sometimes online, sometimes in person), shows them busty pix (it’s her sister! it’s her hot friend!), and then attempts to bilk them out of cash (for her now-kidnapped sister or for a boob job for her hot friend or whatever). It works, and Penny is ready to step up her game, after literally stepping on a glossy mag that promises that an idyllic seaside town in France is full to bursting with rich dudes. Au revoir, Penny!
Too bad then that said idyllic seaside town already has its very own grifter, the impeccably turned-out Josephine (Hathaway) who has made a home for herself (and her random British accent) among its sunny climes, where she’s managed to ensnare half the local population in her own brand of rich dude-scamming. When Josephine and Penny meet, Josephine instantly recognizes a competitor (if a low-rent one), or maybe a pal, or maybe a competitor, or maybe a pal? — the film can never quite decide, and neither can its central characters — but a series of stupid contrivances soon follow, all the better to keep throwing the two of them together and hoping something good happens.
When “The Hustle” succeeds — in fits and starts, and with occasional big laughs — it’s wholly thanks to the dedication of Hathaway and Wilson, who throw themselves into thinly written roles (the film somehow required four screenwriters) that they spice up by bringing their A-game to material that’s beneath them. Both characters — and perhaps both actresses — enjoy toying with the expectations ascribed to them, with Wilson’s Penny playing up that she’s not a traditional bombshell (all the better to catfish the crappy men she easily cons with a handful of “hot” photos on her phone) and Hathaway’s Josephine further digging into the snotty persona that made her turn “Ocean’s 8” into such a scream. “The Hustle” may not be very good, but Hathaway and Wilson all but beg for a sequel, if only so that this inspired pairing get the chance to really score.
As Penny and Josephine settle into a seemingly winning formula — Jo snags the super-rich dudes, Penny drives them away, they presumably leave behind a bunch of money or jewels or other pricey items for the ladies to enjoy — their early competition bubbles up and threatens to disrupt their burgeoning partnership. Or does it? Uneven writing from the jump keeps both Penny and Josephine’s true motivations muddled, and “The Hustle” attempts to gracelessly shrug out of it with a sudden conflict and a confusing bet involving a seemingly sweet new mark (Alex Sharp). Smarter films would play up the gag that even the film itself doesn’t really know what its wily hustlers are going to do next, but “The Hustle” isn’t intelligent enough to dig into it.
A romantic entanglement further ups the stakes and allows Wilson the chance to mine some emotional beats, as Hathaway gets more broad with her comedy (though a sight gag involving an ill-placed oyster seems destined to go down as one of her best bits of physical comedy ever). The convoluted screenplay spins wildly outwards, at one point involving a random group of women who apparently beat up Wilson, and then Hathaway, and then back to Wilson again, all the better to drive home the point that even the most bizarre of subplots can’t hold on to a cogent focus. There’s bad green screen. There’s double crossing. There’s an absolutely terrible joke about “hysterical blindness.” There’s still more bad green screen, a final ten minutes that limps to the finish line, and an embarrassing bid for a followup, but at least there’s also Hathaway and Wilson, adding actual class to a cheap remake barely worth the price of admission.
MGM will release “The Hustle” in theaters on Friday, May 10.