Even with an enjoyably cheeky performance by Anne Hathaway at its disposal, The Hustle makes for a tedious repackaging of a fun comedic premise.
At a time when reboots are more popular than ever in Hollywood, it's little wonder studios have started using gender-swapping as a way of dusting off older properties and making them feel relevant again. However, whereas recent films like Ghostbusters and Ocean's Eight attempted to put fresh spins on popular IPs by introducing new leads that happen to all be women, The Hustle is a gender-swapped remake in a far more literal sense. A re-imagining of Frank Oz's 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself, a remake of Ralph Levy's 1964 comedy, Bedtime Story), The Hustle struggles to unearth new life in its all too familiar tale of competing con artists. Even with an enjoyably cheeky performance by Anne Hathaway at its disposal, The Hustle makes for a tedious repackaging of a fun comedic premise.
Hathaway stars in The Hustle as Josephine Chesterfield, a sophisticated trickster who's swindled her way into a luxurious home and life in the French seaside village of Beaumont-sur-Mer. And much like Steve Martin played an unrefined American hustler to Michael Caine's posh British conman in Oz's film, Rebel Wilson costars here as Penny Rust, an Australian scammer who lacks Josephine's careful and cunning approach to her craft. The plot unfolds the same as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' from there, with the twist being the two con artist frenemies are women who eventually find themselves trying to pull a fast one over on an unsuspecting man. In this case, the target is one Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp), the young inventor of a lucrative new app.
While The Hustle was written by Jac Schaeffer (Olaf's Frozen Adventure), she shares credit with the writers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and for valid reason. As mentioned, the film is basically a rehash of its predecessor that aspires to be more feminist by making the leads women who're able to con wealthy men by appealing to their egos, arrogance, and sense of entitlement. It's a sound approach on paper, but doesn't really work in motion. For starters, Josephine and Penny's targets are comically gullible to the degree where it's not exactly satisfying to watch them get tricked and served their just desserts. As a result, there's nothing particularly challenging or insightful about the way the movie handles sexism in the modern world, either. And without spoiling anything for those unfamiliar with the story here, The Hustle's various twists and turns only end up muddling the film's themes about gender (despite its attempt to avoid sending an unintended "Not all men" message along the way).
That wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker if The Hustle's characters were engaging enough to carry the story past its flaws, but the film's a mixed bag in that respect. Hathaway, thankfully, seems to be having a good time hamming it up, in the process delivering a burlesqued portrayal of a glamorous crook that, at times, matches her scene-stealing turn in Ocean's Eight for self-awareness. Wilson, on the other hand, employs her typical comedic shtick to diminished returns, complete with hit-or-miss slapstick humor and an ineffective attempt to bring some heart to her otherwise broadly irreverent performance. Of the pair, Hathaway seems more in tune with the zany, yet witty, tone the movie is going for, whereas Wilson's shenanigans keep pushing its scenes over the top. As for Sharp: his Mark Zuckerberg-inspired caricature is there for Hathaway and Wilson to bounce jokes off for most of the film's runtime, nothing more or less.
Unfortunately, on the opposite side of the camera, The Hustle helmsman Chris Addison's work is equally spotty. The actor-director is far from a stranger to exaggerated comedies like this (having appeared in and directed the political TV satires The Thick of It and Veep, respectively), but his lack of experience as a movie helmer shows here, sadly. As a whole, The Hustle has something of a TV film look to it (in a bad way, that is), complete with clunky green screen backdrops and overall flat visuals. And save for a montage where Josephine trains Penny in the art of being a master con artist, the film doesn't have much success when it comes to finding inventive ways of staging its comedy-driven set pieces and sequences, either. It's too bad; Emma Fryer's costume designs and Sophie Phillips' set decoration are frequently as slick and suave as that of an Ocean's movie, but don't really stand out due to the way they're shot.
All in all, The Hustle isn't painfully bad so much as it never really springs to life. There's certainly potential for something entertaining here, but the film shows gender-swapping on a superficial level isn't enough to provide a decades-old setup with a new lease on life, or make it feel any less outdated than it already is. This also explains why MGM kept messing with The Hustle's release date and ultimately moved it back eleven months from its original June 2018 launch time, in favor of a less competitive weekend early this May. Still, Hathaway's gleefully silly performance alone (complete with her amusingly unconvincing British accent) is reason enough to warrant checking this one out at home in the future.
The Hustle is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 93 minutes long and is rated PG-13 on appeal for crude sexual content and language.
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- The Hustle (2019) release date: May 10, 2019