Directed by Chris Addison
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp
Rated PG-13 on appeal for crude sexual content and language
1 hr. 33 min.
Americans seem particularly susceptible to the art of the con these days — as far as movies go. It seems only right that a pair of lady flim-flam artists would arrive at the multiplex between the year’s biggest blockbuster (Avengers: Endgame) and Memorial Day weekend to legitimately fleece some bucks out of moviegoers. I give you The Hustle. In the spring of 2001, another such film, Heartbreakers, with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as mother and daughter cons, hit the top of the box office on its opening weekend. The Hustle won’t come close to that, but making fools of the wealthy and gullible is always good for cinematic kicks and grins.
Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson star in this female reimagining of two previous scam movies: 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with the formidable duo of Michael Caine and Steve Martin, and Bedtime Story, a 1964 pairing of Hollywood legends David Niven and Marlon Brando. In homage to its lineage, The Hustle has an animated title sequence, in the style of many ’60’s films of this type (think The Pink Panther) that captures the vibe and sets the tone.
Ah, but the chemistry between the two leads stands out more than the story. As Penny Rust, an Australian, Wilson (also one of the film’s producers) is an all-out tornado. Her physicality and buttocks-over-brain-stem pratfalls play directly and unashamedly off her zaftig physique. She’s Chris Farley-esque in her fearlessness. Verbally, she’s a torrent of one-liners so quick and facile that they soared over the heads of the matinee crowd at the screening this reviewer attended. When they land, they sting the funny bone. The scriptwriting collective (Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer and Jac Schaeffer) seems to have aimed too high, and Wilson proved too droll, too adept.
Hathaway, playing the very British Josephine Chesterfield, with eyes big enough to fill the screen all on their own, takes on some haughty accents, and appears to be having a ball throughout. Mischievousness is omnipresent, as the two rivals meet on a train after individually playing a couple of men for boobs: Penny robs Veep’s lanky Timothy Simons in an online dating sting while Josephine chisels a moth-eaten Dane (Caspar Christensen) at a casino. Tailing Josephine to the French Riviera, Penny demands to learn the art of her con. After a hilarious run through some scams called “The Lord of the Rings,” the ladies wager each other in a race to liberate a young tech wizard (Alex Sharp) of a large chunk of his money.
Because studios are fond of revisiting hit movies from a distaff perspective (it’s called gender-swapping), it’d be easy to completely dismiss The Hustle as derivative. That’s not the problem. Though purely camp, nicely directed by Chris Addison and strictly for the fun of it, the fact that the crowd misses those deftly written jokes takes the wind out of the movie’s sails at times. As another fictional Dane might have said, “To laugh or not to laugh. That is the question.”
Consider the positives. Wilson’s abilities, for one. She’s like a lower-decibel Martha Raye, her bounding, bopping and bouncing followed by drollery. Hathaway’s outlandish German inflections, for another, and that doofus Dane. Like Heartbreakers, women characters are elevated to rulers of the grifter’s roost. But, like fast food, The Hustle isn’t quite all the nourishment you need. For a snack, however, it’s not bad. And it’s a relief, these days, to watch con artists at work in a film, not on a newscast. In that respect, The Hustle’s heart is in the right place.