All the best moments from The Hustle are in the trailer, but the trailer isn't funny, so you can imagine what a dead zone the rest of the movie is. This is the latest example of a “gender flipped” remake, which can be a fresh way of adapting familiar material, provided the new version has something to say. No statement exists here, though. You're better off watching the original, 1964's Bedtime Story, or the 1989 re-do Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, because there's barely a laugh to be found.
Anne Hathaway plays Josephine Chesterfield, an elegant, high-class con artist. Rebel Wilson is Penny Rust, a low-rent grifter. The two meet on a train in the south of France. At first, they're rivals. Then Josephine becomes a mentor to Penny. Then they're competitors again, making a bet over who can bilk a tech millionaire named Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) first.
For an idea of how weak The Hustle is, compare the signature scene from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to its counterpart here. Michael Caine is trying to con a wealthy woman by pretending to woo her. Steve Martin's job is to be “Ruprecht,” a socially incompetent man who will scare her away. The sequence is hilarious because it's exaggerated just enough to fit within the film's carefully-established tone. Rebel Wilson does a similar thing in one scene, masquerading as an insane, destructive woman locked away in a room full of mannequins. It doesn't work, because the idea is taken too far over the top, to the point where you don't believe anyone could be stupid enough to fall for such a ruse. A con in which Josephine pretends to be a doctor similarly pales in comparison.
Even if you've never seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Hustle doesn't cut it. For a movie about con artists to succeed, it's vital that the scam be set up thoroughly. We need to understand what the grifters are trying to accomplish. We also need to see the victim get sucked into it, so that the stakes seem real. The Hustle has an annoying tendency to rush through these crucial elements, effectively making the scams far less engrossing than they should be.
Instead, the movie offers too many instances of unfunny crude humor. Penny, for instance, is made to eat a french fry that has been dunked in a toilet. Time and again, The Hustle takes the easy way out, using forced humor to define its characters or choosing to go for a cheap laugh rather than building toward a moment of genuine inspiration.
Hathaway and Wilson certainly try their best. They are not to blame. Most frustrating of all is that the leads have decent chemistry together. If only the material didn't repeatedly let them down, they might have found themselves teamed up for a mini-classic. The film has no perspective on its female characters – no worthwhile perspective, at least. A couple minor references are made to conning men who think they're smarter than women, without ever exploring the idea. Too bad, because the actresses could have made it sing.
The Hustle is a waste of two fine talents, who get stuck in a story that has lots of potential, yet no desire whatsoever to capitalize on it.
out of four
The Hustle is rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.