The Hustle

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Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Tim Blake Nelson, Ingrid Oliver, Sarah-Stephanie, Aaron Neil, Deano Bugatti Director: Chris Addison Time: 94 minutes Genre: Comedy Age Restriction: 13 LSV Release Date: May 10, 2019

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

When low-level con artist, Penny, worms her way into her life, high-class hustler, Josephine, does her best to remove Penny from her life as quickly as possible before she has a chance to ruin the life she has built for herself on the French Riviera. When everything she tries fails, she challenges Penny to a wager whereby the first to swindle a young tech-billionaire out of $500 000 gets to stay in this swanky riverside paradise while the loser has to leave for less desirable climes.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

The Hustle is a gender-swapped remake of the ‘80s Steve Martin/Michael Caine comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was itself based on the lesser known Marlon Brando/ David Niven vehicle, Bedtime Stories from 1964. Third time, as it turns out, is not always the charm.

Despite a certain amount of snobbishness by some critics at the time, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was generally and rightly hailed as a fine update on its predecessor thanks in no small part to the undeniable comedic chemistry of Caine and Martin, both with each other and with Glenne Headly (the quietly terrific character-actress that you will almost definitely recognize even if you don’t know her name and who sadly passed away a couple of years ago at the very young age of 62). It was sharp, stylish and funny and featured some serious comic talents at the top of their game.

The Hustle, on the other hand, has little of the smarts, charm or comic dexterity of its predecessor. Though there is something to be said for switching the genders around as a means to examine the difference between men and women in a, shall we say, “career” that relies so heavily on dishonesty, seduction and illusion, the Hustle still feels largely irrelevant in a way that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels never did. And that’s even after accepting the fact that this being thirty years later, most of the Hustle’s audience won’t have seen either of the films on which it is based.   

Despite what most of the reviews are already saying (it’s being released here day and date with the US), the Hustle isn’t a terrible film. It’s just one that isn’t smart, fresh or funny enough to justify its existence. The comic caper has long been a well-loved Hollywood staple, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s an apparently endless amount of pleasure to be had from seeing professional hustlers conning others and one another in increasingly elaborate and twisted ways, and when you throw in some good laughs along the way, you’re left with all the ingredients needed for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

What this also means, though, is that with so much history behind them, modern comic capers have their work cut out for them in distinguishing themselves from the pack. The Hustle has a lot wrong and a fair amount right about it, but the ultimate impression it leaves is one of “so what”. Since Dirty Rotten Scoundrels we’ve had Ocean’s Eleven, Matchstick Men, The Grifters, Snatch, even Intolerable Cruelty (sorry, I still think it’s underrated) and there’s just nothing about the Hustle that stands out -  and if there is, it’s that the actual conning and conniving is far less elegant and just a lot dumber than in most superior caper/ heist/ con-artist films.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not perfectly watchable. Both the French Riviera and Anne Hathaway provide plenty of eye-candy, while director Chris Addison has directed enough episodes of Veep to know how to make the film move along at a brisk, breezy pace throughout its very brief ninety-minute runtime. Best of all, Anne Hathaway is pretty damn good as the elegant, upper-crust conwoman. Her English accent, though indeed very Julie Andrews (as the film itself notes) sounds pretty solid to these untrained ears but it’s her dry, prickly comic delivery that carries the film and provides most of the laughs.

The script itself (written by no less than four people) is a bit leaden, though, as it displays little of the slick intelligence and sharp dialogue of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and seems to leave much of the comedic heavy lifting to its two leading ladies. Speaking of which, while Hathaway more than holds up her end, Rebel Wilson is something of a problem.

Wilson has been very funny in the past, but her one-note schtick is becoming more than a little tired. Yes, Steve Martin brought a similar comic energy to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that he did to most of his best comedy roles, but it was still distinct enough performance to silence any charges of self-plagiarism. Rebel Wilson, however, is literally just playing Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect again.

Not a character similar to Fat Amy or one with the same comic ticks, you understand, but a character that has no discernible differences from Fat Amy whatsoever. I thought she was seriously funny in Pitch Perfect but a lot less so by the time Pitch Perfect 3 came along. Her performance here, though, feels especially tired and uninspired, and the kind of brash, crass energy she brought to Fat Amy is just completely wrong for this sort of film. It’s not so much that she is responsible for no laughs here, but her hit rate has never been lower.

All of this, unfortunately, adds up to a film that should pretty much do its job if you happen to catch it on a lazy Sunday afternoon on whatever TV service you happen to be using but if you’re going out of your way for a comedic caper movie, there are literally dozens of films from just the past few decades that are a far better choice. And, yes, one of those is most certainly Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.