The Hustle (2019)
They’re giving dirty rotten men a run for their money.
Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway), a classy con artist with an affinity for the high life, is making her way back home on the train to an affluent coastal region of Southern France when she encounters the rather sloppy and abrasive, but still effective con woman Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson). Unsettled by her brash nature and the fact that Penny could disrupt the ‘business’ on her turf, Josephine stealthily deploys her contact, Brigitte Desjardins (Ingrid Oliver), to successfully distract Penny with a group of men posing as marks.
To the shock of both Josephine and Brigitte, Penny soon arrives at the French Riviera anyway, having scammed a sympathetic rich man with the often-deployed story of her attractive sister’s expensive surgery needs. Realizing her opponent’s game, Josephine begins to teach Penny her ‘sugar baby ways’ after being threatened by her rival, who blackmails to destroy the prestigious lifestyle she’d built for herself.
Reluctantly, Josephine takes Penny under her wing, hoping she’ll vamoose once her training is done, but it soon becomes apparent that Penny (who begins experiencing all the finer things in life) isn’t going anywhere. And, thus, a winner-takes-all con is proposed: whoever successfully wrings $50k out of an introverted app developer named Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) gets to stay in town, while the other will be given the boot.
The creative talent shepherding all of this is an interesting pool, to say the least. We have screenwriter Jac Schaeffer, TiMER (2009), who’s set to become a big thing over the next few years, being embedded with Marvel Studios in the Black Widow spinoff and the TV series WandaVision. Her breakthrough project was the Disney animated short Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (2017), which played before some sessions of Coco (2017). If her work on that short is any indication, I’d say she’s probably better suited to fresh material, as it seems to free up her imagination and structure.
The Hustle flips the gender roles from director Frank ‘Yoda’ Oz’s hugely successful comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) in which Michael Caine played the sophisticated con man and Steve Martin the goofy eager learner. That film itself was a remake of another movie called Bedtime Story (1964), featuring David Niven as the wise teacher and of all people, Marlon Brando as the silly student. Scoundrels is one of my all-time favorite comedies, certainly ranking amongst the best that Steve Martin has starred in and Frank Oz has directed, with Bedtime Story no slouch either, having me in stitches with Brando’s unbridled silliness.
It’s not too surprising that this material could be re-imagined with a modern feminist spin, with female-fronted films becoming more and more prominent at the multiplexes. Normally my gut reaction to anyone taking on a fave of mine would be ‘concerned,’ but here, I could instantly see what could be done with such a fun basic premise. What’s been fascinating is how the marketing has pushed this idea that these two women are somewhat justified in their double-crossings, taking on men who apparently ‘had it coming.’
There are two things that I take issue with, both in the resulting film’s initial portion. Firstly, it misses the point of the previous iterations, where the victims were innocent, guilty of little more than being charmed and naïve, with the con artists coming across to us, the audience, as amusingly despicable in their ways — unsurprisingly, they were the dirty rotten scoundrels. The second is that if the filmmakers wanted to get serious about the idea of awful rich dudes getting swindled, they should’ve really committed to making these people especially unlikeable and antagonistic. Think along the lines of a slasher movie, where over the run time, a character is built up as a complete jerk that’ll eventually get their gory comeuppance. By the time they cark it (hopefully in the most extreme way), audiences cheer and clap in celebration. Sure, some of the guys targeted in The Hustle might be horny, notably Josephine’s marks, but they otherwise don’t seem to be in such relentless, unwarranted pursuit that you feel they ought to be duped.
What the film could’ve used in this current climate, and could’ve been somewhat therapeutic for its audience, is something along the lines of a parody of the heavily decried Harvey Weinstein — a greasy, selfish Hollywood mogul who claimed what he wanted from women because he believed that he could get away with it (and unfortunately did for such a long period of time). A character like this would make the perfect target for this sort of story, a true ‘dirty rotten scoundrel’ who deserves a good rip off. What we actually get, though, is a narrative where the victims aren’t all that bad, and not as deserving as you’re led to believe. Yet we’re still expected to applaud the somewhat gallant work of our protagonists.
Directing Schaeffer’s script is Chris Addison, making his feature film debut, having cut his teeth on television work, largely as an actor. Arguably his most famous role is as the awkward Junior Advisor Oliver Reeder on the outrageous BBC political satire The Thick of It (2005-12). Having worked on his fair share of funny material as an actor and director, Addison seems open to letting his stars try things out — I got a strong sense that improvised lines may have been encouraged on set. And this leans into one of the more surprising credits of all — leading actress Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect 3 (2017), as producer.
Truth be told, Wilson’s worn that hat before, producing two TV shows in Bogan Pride (2008) and Super Fun Night (2013-14), and it seems the Netflix rom-com feature Isn’t It Romantic (2019) lent confidence to stretch herself further again. When the MPAA had originally slapped an R rating on The Hustle, it was Wilson who went to bat for a PG-13, citing similar male-lead comedies featuring equally raunchy material, ultimately winning the challenge. It’s an interesting time to be watching Wilson as she grows herself as a brand and a creative collaborator. The comedy on display in The Hustle does suggest she wants to be seen beyond the sort of shtick made famous by her popular ‘Fat Amy’ character from the Pitch Perfect trilogy (2012-17), and it’s that angle she’s slowly changing. Here, she gets to focus on gags that don’t just rely on her weight or idiosyncratic adlib, playing up goofball antics and discomfort — a scene where she is forced to eat a chip rubbed against a toilet bowl is a particular gross-out highlight.
Wilson’s co-star Anne Hathaway pretty much resurrects the same dynamic she deployed in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where her character Selina exploited the sympathies of men to launch surprise attacks. There is, of course, more of a light-hearted approach here, with one of the best moments being where Josephine cries on cue as a demonstration for Penny; it almost feels like a spoof of the moment that nabbed Hathaway her Oscar — crying her eyes out in close up for Les Misérables (2012). She plays off Wilson quite well, willing to be the firm and straight type to Wilson’s loose cannon, and they do really seem to be having a ball with each other. Together, as a duo, Wilson and Hathaway have a nice balance of comedic approaches, letting one another shine in turn.
Look, when it comes to comedies, I’m a very simple sort of person — make me laugh often enough, and you’ll usually find me forgiving narrative shortcomings. The Hustle was never going to seriously challenge my love for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin being one of my favorite comic actors of his era, but I still had a cracking good time with what was on offer. I think you’ll know from the outset whether you’ll be open enough to enjoying the ridiculous shenanigans of Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway. If you find yourself eye rolling and bemoaning the mention of either, you’re unlikely to find anything worthwhile here.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie