“Why are women better suited to the con?” Josephine asks Penny. “Because no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is,” she says, answering her own question.
If only “The Hustle” director Chris Addison truly understood that statement. Instead, his effort to gender-swap the 1988 comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” ends up undermining the message of that film, as well as the 1964 “Bedtime Story” which came before it.
Rebel Wilson is Australian grifter Penny Rust. She is a low-level con artist who swindles men by playing out various scenarios in which she needs to help her hot younger sister. Aboard a train in France, she crosses paths with the elegant Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway). Josephine regards Penny not so much as a threat but a nuisance and schemes to get her to leave town.
Josephine winds up mentoring Penny, a task she reluctantly realizes can be mutually advantageous. But before long, they seize upon a bet that involves scamming half a million dollars from American tech billionaire Thomas (Alex Sharp).
Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson are two very funny women and casting them was the smartest decision in the production. Unfortunately, the script fails to live up to their talents. Jac Schaeffer adapted the story from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and the three men who wrote that script retain their screenplay credits, despite the fact that two of them passed away years ago. But where that film was funny and clever, “The Hustle” always seems to fall just a bit short of landing its punchlines.
One of the major problems is with Wilson’s Penny. Her scams are inventive, and it is believable that she could be someone who would try to pull off such cons. But she is not convincing as someone that could actually get away with it. What man would just hand her a handful of cash based on nothing but a photo of a hot young woman? Wilson is sly, but she’s not that good.
Hathaway fares slightly better, except that her mastery of the con is unproven. The audience is only allowed to accept testimony of her prowess. This is another in the lengthy list of films that tell more about its character than it bothers to show. Hathaway intentionally overplays the British accent, making it feel like part of her general deception. In some ways, Josephine Chesterfield feels like the sequel version of Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger from last year’s “Ocean’s 8.” The character works because of the actress, not because of the script.
“The Hustle” comes from great source material and has two perfectly chosen leads. The dialogue and physical humor occasionally elicit appreciative chuckles, but not much in the way of major laughs. This is a movie that should be on its way to becoming one of the top comedies of the summer, but it’s not very funny, and it is not exactly empowering to women either.
Perhaps Schaeffer and Addison didn’t realize what they were doing to the original story when they were crafting this version. Perhaps in their effort to prove that women could be devious, they overlooked the point of the previous films. Whether intentional or not, “The Hustle” forsakes message for mediocre humor. This film is proof that there is more to gender-swapping a story than switching the leads from male to female. It requires careful thought, consideration, and frequently questioning whether this is the right story to tell. In the case of “The Hustle,” it simply and unfortunately is not.