The Hustle, MGM’s gender-swapped spin on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels replacing Michael Caine and Steve Martin with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, is the worst thing a modern comedy can be: inessential. It’s neither hilarious or interesting enough to warrant enthusiastic recommendation nor terrible enough to inspire “has to be seen to be believed” musings or outrage. Instead, it’s a mildly amusing, highly predictable comedy released at a time when such films struggle to sell tickets since their target audience increasingly prefers to simply stay home and stream.
For example, if you’ve yet to catch Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini in Netflix’s new mystery comedy Dead to Me you really should give your time to something like that before The Hustle. The Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron rom-com The Long Shot is also vastly superior to The Hustle, yet it belly flopped at the box office last weekend. Should that happen to The Hustle, it would certainly be on theme for the year. 2019 comedies, a group which also includes What Men Want, Isn’t It Romantic, and Little, are really struggling to break through the clutter.
Which is why it’s interesting that MGM chose to almost completely hide the fact The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was itself a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story. Same goes for What Men Want (a remake of What Women Want) and Little (an inversion of Big). These gender or race or gender AND race-flipped updates on old stories have been sold as brand new ideas with no relation to anything we might already know. Sink or swim on their merits and all that.
Maybe audiences have forgotten or don’t know the 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels film, but they might recognize the title from the 2005 Tony-nominated musical adaptation which originally starred John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz. Or maybe MGM decided reminding people of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels would be counterproductive since The Hustle’s sole innovation is gender-swapping the characters and updating their “mark” to be an apparent tech millionaire. Other than that, it’s the same damn movie in tone, story structure, and plot twists.
The story: A wealthy, sophisticated British con artist named Josephine (Hathaway) operating in Beaumont-sur-Mer on the French Riviera meets a loud, brash, and generally unsophisticated rival named of Penny (Wilson) on a train. Fearful of how disruptive such a presence could be to her well-oiled operation, Josephine tries to set Penny up and get her on the first plane out of town. When that fails, she agrees to take Penny on as an apprentice. When that also eventually fails, she challenges Penny to a “loser leaves town” contest. The first to hustle a baby-faced tech millionaire named Thomas (How To Talk To Girls at Parties’ Alex Sharp) out of $500,000 wins.
When that all plays out and the film reaches its tidy ending, we walk away knowing literally nothing of substance about Josephine and almost nothing about Penny. Moreover, unlike Oceans 8 this gender-swapped update does precious little to adjust the material for its female cast. Josephine pays lip service to the various ways women can easily prey on male insecurities, but then she runs an almost identical con to Caine/Martin in the original, meaning she seduces wealthy men into offering valuable engagement rings before introducing them to her scary sister – Penny, obviously – who then runs them out of town.
That speaks to the general lack of imagination which plagues every aspect of The Hustle. It’s a remake of a 1988 comedy which seems to have been made by people who wish comedies could go back to being just like they were in 1988, albeit with various nods to 2019 technology.
Instagram catfishing, for example, is Penny’s primary hustle prior to meeting Josephine. Outwardly self-confident, Penny later admits to feeling at least the tiniest bit hurt every time she saw the disappointed, sometimes disgusted look on the guy’s face when they saw her instead of the Instagram-hottie they were expecting, and it’s the only genuine character moment in the entire film.
Otherwise, Josephine and Penny go through the motions of the plot without ever revealing anything about themselves. That puts even more weight on Hathaway and Wilson’s shoulders to carry the movie. They are playing characters with paper thin motivations, backgrounds, and surprisingly minimal stakes. So, they have to make up for it with crazy antics, big accents, and inventive hustles. The antics, however, are more cartoonish than crazy, the accents minimal, and the hustles aren’t particularly inventive.
Hathaway can still thrive in this kind of arena. She proved that by stealing Oceans 8 right out from under her bigger name co-stars, but oddly her most inspired moment in The Hustle is when she briefly reprises her airhead Oceans 8 persona while conning a man out of a bracelet (“I like it because it’s shiny” she observes in-character after he tells her how much its’ worth). Wilson, on the other hand, is just doing the Rebel Wilson schtick. The two of them together aren’t exactly unfunny but their odd-couple combination of sophistication and physical humor never completely gels.
That all being said, The Hustle still got some laughs out of me. At one point, Hathaway literally slams a door in Wilson’s face – who is pretending to be blind as part of her con – and damn if it isn’t a great bit of a physical comedy. The whole film is light on its feet, breezy summer entertainment. Someday, you might catch it on streaming and laugh every time Rebel does a pratfall. However, based on 2019 trends that day won’t come until well after The Hustle leaves theaters. If so, I can’t totally blame you.