“The Hustle” is to 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” what a Kidz Bop cover is to a beloved pop song: Same tune, same lyrics and tone-deaf execution.
If you somehow missed the Michael-Caine-and-Steve-Martin-starring “Scoundrels” or the film that it remade (1964’s “Bedtime Story” with David Niven and Marlon Brando), there might be enough chuckles to get you through the credits or at least interest you in the superior original films. But was anyone really clamoring for a “feminist” remake of “Scoundrels” in 2019?
If you’ve seen the previous iterations, you know the plot: A sophisticated professional con-woman (Anne Hathaway gamely stepping into the Caine/Niven role) and a less refined competitor (Rebel Wilson in the Martin/Brando role) descend on the French Riviera town of Beaumont-sur-Mer to swindle rich people. The town isn’t big enough for the two of them so they settle on a mark named Thomas (Alex Sharp in the Glenne Headly/Shirley Jones role) and make a bet: Whoever swindles him first stays while the other has to leave town.
The original “Scoundrels”, you may remember, was surprisingly feminist itself with the late-in-the-film reveal that Martin and Caine’s female mark was actually conning them and proving that a woman could make it in a man’s world.
This “feminist” “Hustle” pulls the same trick by revealing that Thomas has outconned both the ladies at the end, which leads to some decidedly un-feminist messaging: Women are smart, but men are smarter.
Even if you ignore that ending, the messaging is suspect. Is “women are just as good at lying as men” really the message you want to share with young girls?
Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning (who wrote “Bedtime Story”) and Dale Launer (who wrote “Scoundrels”) are among the four credited screenwriters, which illustrates just how much “Hustle” recycles old material. Even the cons and the jokes are copied and pasted from previous versions of this tale.
Three films in, this material is getting old and Jac Shaeffer, the one new screenwriter, does little to spice it up.
Wilson, at least, gets in a pretty decent “Princess Diaries” dig at Hathaway and her phony British accent.
“Oh sorry, Julie Andrews just called. She wants her voice back.”
Hathaway has a pretty great answer when a mark asks “What brings you to Southern France?”
The stretches between the jokes that land are interminable which makes this feel much longer than 90 minutes.
Hathaway, at least, seems to be having some fun. It’s been a while since she’s taken a comic role in a film, and she seems to relish it.
Wilson gives her all, but ultimately proves that she is no Steve Martin when it comes to comedy. Or even Marlon Brando.
Sharp, a Tony-winner with limited film experience, makes for an appealing mark. Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad” and Timothy Simons of “Veep” pop in to remind you that director Chris Addison apparently had no money for big-name actors after hiring Hathaway and Wilson.
In the end, “The Hustle” (rated PG-13 for crude sexual content and language) is as flimsy as Hathaway’s British accent and has as much imagination as its bland title.
And it begs some questions: Is copying and pasting women into traditionally male roles really the best we can do for a “feminist” film in 2019? And if you’re going to bring a classic comedy back from the dead, can’t you at least keep the funny bone intact?
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.