Comedy is arguably the most subjective of genres – what’s funny to someone might be painful to another. This division has never been more apparent than in The Hustle, the new “girls night out” comedy starring Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway as competing con-women. When low-brow Penny Rust (Wilson) infringes on Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway)’s high brow hunting ground of Beaumont-Sur-Mer, they make a wager to rob wealthy Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) blind in order to determine which of them has to move on.
If the plot sounds familiar, it is because The Hustle is a not-so-secret gender flipped Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the 1988 comedy starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as the con artists and Glenne Headly as their mark. If you’ve seen the original film, there’s no reason to watch this new one; aside from a few modern updates, it’s the exact same movie.
The other reason to avoid this film? If you’re not a big fan of Rebel Wilson, The Hustle is one helluva slog.
This is basically the Rebel Wilson show, with the famed Australian actress given free access to be as broad, dumb and pratfall-y as possible. And that’s one of the film’s biggest issues. Rather than play against expectations like Melissa McCarthy did in Spy, The Hustle leans into Penny’s “fat, stupid foreigner” schtick at every opportunity, finding as many derivations as possible to run Wilson into doors and slide across floors. It is the exact same role Wilson has been playing since her breakout in 2012’s Pitch Perfect, but she’s no longer the supporting actor; now she’s the headliner and it’s simply exhausting.
It’s unclear how much Wilson (and Hathaway when she infrequently appears) are improvising, but it is clear is that there are foundational issues with the script. Given that The Hustle is a near identical copy of the ’88 film, it’s hardly a surprise that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ original three screenwriters – Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, and Dale Launer – are all listed as contributors. The sole new addition is Jac Schaeffer, a woman with ties to forthcoming Marvel projects WandaVision and The Black Widow prequel, but The Hustle certainly doesn’t do much to advance the female con game.
Back in the 80s, the idea of two men preying on women was common fare. With the gender inversion of the new film, there’s an admirable restraint in having the pair refrain from using their sexuality to secure financial gain – at least initially. Josephine preys on men’s desire to be heroes and rescue vulnerable women, while Penny catfishes men using a stock photo of a generic blond she claims is her sister who either requires breast implants or rescue from sexual slavery.
Naturally the men in the film are uniformly played for idiots, including Thomas, a tech millionaire who not so coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg. Initially the goal is to part the naïve man-child from $500K in a week’s time, but when it is revealed that Thomas is actually a nice guy with genuine feelings for Penny, the bet suddenly changes to who can bed him in the same time frame. This is another holdover from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but for a film that has mostly refused to stoop to sexual seduction for 2/3 of its runtime, the sudden shift feels tired, cheap and icky.
Of course, The Hustle is all about cheap and icky. The attempts to modernize the story, in addition to Thomas’ app-related fortune, are all unsurprisingly low-brow and sexual. Aside from a few mildly amusing zingers the women hurl at each other, The Hustle relies on juvenile lesbian, STI and potty humour. This, in addition to the criminal sidelining of Hathaway at nearly every turn (despite the former’s admirable job playing up no less than four different accents) renders The Hustle a cheap remake, a too-broad-by-far comedy and an prime example of lazy screenwriting.
One final sidebar: the costumes look cheap. If you’re trying to make connote that Josephine is wildly rich and successful at her job, the production should have snagged someone like costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus (who created Blake Lively’s amazing looks in A Simple Favor) to do the job right.