It’s the season of the hipster grifter (one of whom, Anna Sorokin, was sentenced to 12 years in prison Thursday) and a government obsessed with doing all the crimes itself, so you’d think it’s the perfect time for a goofy comedy about two savvy, sexy con women, right?
Sure — but not if that movie is “The Hustle,” a would-be subversive, gender-swapped remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, which is itself a remake of the 1964 film, “Bedtime Story,” which starred Marlon Brando and David Niven.
“Scoundrels” remains absurd and wonderful (“Ruprecht, do you want the genital cuff?") and you should rent it instead of seeing “The Hustle.” Or, if you’re in the mood for killer femmes taking advantage of hapless dudes while decked out in haute couture, check out “Ocean’s 8,” which actually shows off Hathaway’s comedic chops in a way that riffs on her perfectly polished Hollywood image.
What’s remarkable about both of these movies is that the cons themselves are silly, If not downright ludicrous, but the onscreen chemistry, writing and French Riviera glitz speeds along the narrative so quickly you don’t notice. The attitude of “Ocean’s 8” towards men isn’t much warmer than that of “The Hustle” — rarely are they given more than bit parts in the “Ocean’s” narrative, and the butchest character is played by Cate Blanchett in a dizzying array of fierce ensembles — but it’s much savvier and subtle.
In “The Hustle,” directed by Chris Addison, our two anti-heroes lack any particularly interesting characteristics that might give the viewer something to hold on to. Rebel Wilson co-stars as Lonnie/Penny, the scrappy, somewhat stupid corollary to Steve Martin’s Freddy/Ruprecht, and Anne Hathaway plays Josephine, a British ice queen who is the onscreen equivalent of Michael Caine’s character Lawrence. Where Freddy is sleazy, Lonnie is bumbling; where Freddy finagles freebies out of his marks, Lonnie mostly just confuses them or keeps talking until they give up. As the “low rent” half of the pair, Lonnie’s favorite activities are catfishing men on dating apps and then swindling them, eating messily and having sex. (Wow, a horny, hungry, plus-size female character — what a unique concept.)
Lonnie’s main con is that when she meets up with a man she’s been catfishing and he’s inevitably disappointed that she’s not the outrageously buxom babe he’s been texting, she convinces him that the woman is her sister and she needs money for a breast augmentation. When she’s busted by police during a bar date with “Veep’s” Timothy Simons, the previous victim shouts, “That’s the fake tit job bitch!” (That this set-up is deeply unlikely to have worked in 2019 is never addressed.)
Lonnie, at least, gets the most narrative development, such as it is; she reveals that she only robs the men she’s been catfishing if she meets them and they’re disappointed to get her instead of the babe in the photo... that she herself picked and sent them.
Josephine is frigid and humorless but well-coiffed, and Hathaway occasionally flips on her Hollywood charm to lure in suitors with large diamond rings and other goodies. In one particular scene, she gives a glimpse of what “The Hustle” could have been, when she flips between various accents and languages in a meta-con. In what passes for “Odd Couple”-style banter, though, Josephine is subjected to fangless zingers from Lonnie, whose quips include that Josephine “looks like a librarian corpse but less lively.”
Josephine and Lonnie’s tête-à-tête is equally humorless; the only thing on which they agree is that men are the perfect marks, because they don’t expect women to outsmart them, and women are “used to faking it,” as per Lonnie. Such is the gender humor in “The Hustle.” Where the grifters of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” lean into the soft-hearted ways of simple womenfolk, Lonnie and Josephine use sex and/or stupidity to manipulate modern Neanderthals. The sexism, like Martin’s physical gags, hasn’t aged well.
Once they’re forced to work together, Lonnie takes on the Steve Martin role and plays Josephine’s sister; at one point, she dresses up like a medieval princess with very bad teeth who lives in a tricked-out cell in their home’s basement, along with her “court” full of mannequins. When they meet a sweet-faced tech dude played by Alex Sharp, they switch tactics, with Lonnie pretending to be a hapless but sweet blind woman and Josephine as a doctor who specializes in hysterical blindness, leading to some particularly icky torments.
It's supposed to be kind of empowering, I guess? There’s an argument to be made that gross-out humor levels a playing field where women are supposed to be demure fembots who never fart — and, as previously established with “The Favourite,” I am a big fan of women being gassy, gout-ridden nightmares manipulating their way to power. But there has to be something more to grossing people out than Lonnie getting slammed in the junk.
“The Hustle” is written by Jac Schaeffer, who wrote and directed the indie flick “TiMER,” worked on the "Captain Marvel" script and cooked up the stand-alone script for Scarlett Johansson’s “Black Widow.” Her portfolio of work, then, is nothing to sniff at and one mediocre script shouldn’t derail an otherwise burgeoning career (certainly, it rarely derails men’s), but “The Hustle” is a great example of why her audiences deserved more than a gender-swapped remake with but a few updated details.
Sure, I loved Paul Feig’s remake of “Ghostbusters,” but I’d have to sit down and seriously think hard to remember any of it. And “The Hustle” is no “Ghostbusters.” It’s not even “Ghostbusters II.”