The Hustle is a charming and funny tale of women behaving badly until it dares grow a heart and almost sinks the whole film. “Wow them in the end,” as the old saying goes. The opposite is also true. You can disappoint in the end and bankrupt all the good faith you had accrued.
Chris Addison’s The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is itself a remake of Bedtime Story. I haven’t seen the latter but I have seen the former. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is renowned for being a movie that stars Steve Martin and Michael Caine as two con men. A sort of slobs versus snobs comedy that is never as funny as it should be but never as boring as it could be either.
Switch out Michael Caine for Anne Hathaway as Josephine Chesterfield while brushing away Steve Martin for Rebel Wilson as Penny Rust. Hathaway’s Josephine is an arrogant classist jerk while Wilson’s Penny is a clueless boorish imbecile. In of itself, there is nothing wrong with this idea. Gender flipping characters is a great way to spice up a remake.
Even the wager the two make, the loser has to leave town forever, is the same. The script has four credited writers, Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer. Launer wrote Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Shapiro and Henning wrote the original Bedtime Story. Schaffer is the one responsible for The Hustle. Beat for beat, plot device for plot device-right down to the twist at the end, it is, literally, the same movie.
The “twist” at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels played on the inherent misogyny of the audience- both external and internal. Flipping the genders but keeping the same finale undoes all the wonderful amorality we’ve been reveling in for the past hour.
To make matters worse, the mark, Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp), is a tech dudebro. He invented an app which creates insults for friends. A tech-billionaire with a heart of gold. In the original Glenne Headly was Janet Colgate, a lottery winner from the midwest. Not to give anything away but the whole purpose of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was the notion that a woman could never be smarter than a man.
I ask you, between a tech billionaire or a midwestern housewife, who just won the lottery, who does your sympathies lie with? Sharp is a wonderful presence and he does the job he’s asked of. But in 2019 playing a tech billionaire with a boyish charm and “aw gosh” attitude is pushing the limits of my suspension of disbelief.
The Hustle uses it’s predecessor’s premise as to explain why Josephine and Penny are so successful. The duo uses the notion of men unable to believe a woman could be smarter and use it against them. So when the reveal comes, they are essentially punished-yet rewarded? Oh, and there is a romantic subplot between Penny and Thomas.
In a movie based on amoral sociopaths trying to one-up each other over a juvenile territorial bet, the filmmakers cheapen everything by trying to make us feel for the characters. Worse, they try to retroactively add dimension and sympathy to Wilson’s Penny. Towards the end, we learn that she felt bad about all those men she conned.
If you’re sensing a tone of disappointment in my writing; you’re not wrong. Before the sniveling overly sentimental third act The Hustle was actually quite a lot of fun. Women behaving badly movies are not exactly rare these days. But compared to the reams of movies where men behave abysmally they are still paltry. The joy of this type of movie is that women get to be awful, scheming, petty and not have to worry about ending the movie shackled with a man.
Wilson is no Steve Martin but she is funny. Her and Hathaway have wonderful smooth chemistry as they go for broad laughs. The Hustle isn’t Moliere but that’s okay-it never pretends to be. Most of the laughs come from Wilson slamming into something or Hathaway putting on an outrageously unbelievable accent.
The joy in movies like these is the heedlessness of their goofiness. Their willingness to be disgusting without being vulgar. When Josephine, disguised as a famous Dutch psychologist, interviews Penny who is disguised as a blind lady, it isn’t a battle of wits that ensues. It’s a battle of wills. Penny can see what Josephine is doing and Josephine is trying to get Penny to break character.
Hathaway and Wilson are essential Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Which is which depends on what act of the movie we’re talking about. Despite my realization, I was essentially watching the same movie I watched back in the eighties, I found myself laughing. These ladies are funny and make the best of what little the script gives them.
Addison and the script though are weighed down by a heterosexual orthodoxy that demands any story with a woman and a man must end with them together. Oddly it never demands a story with no men for the women to end up together. Or heaven forbid a story with all men to end up in the other’s big burly arms.
In the last week, I have seen Wild Nights With Emily and Fast Color both fresh new inventive movies by women filmmakers. Yet, here I am talking to you about a mediocre big-budget remake written largely by men and directed by men. The Hustle is the type of movie that infuriates me not because of how bad it is but because of how close it was to being really good.
Image courtesy of United Artists Releasing