Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Remakes are a reliable Hollywood standby. Take something people are already aware of and give it a little spin. It takes advantage of fans of the original while hopefully creating new ones. Recently, the trend has been to make them feel fresher by gender-swapping the characters. Sometimes it works, others not so much. Of course, the gender of the actors has nothing to do with the quality of the product. It is not enough to just switch out a male character for a female one; filmmakers need to figure out how to capture the spirit of the original as they update it for different actors, a different audience and the differences between the genders. It is so easy to find movies at home these days. We need a reason to go seek out the new version instead of staying in and streaming the old one.
In 1988, Michael Caine and Steve Martin starred in the con-man comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (itself based on the 1964 Marlon Brando-David Niven comedy Bedtime Story). That has now been gender-swapped into The Hustle, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. It follows the plot of Scoundrels faithfully, even repeating a few of the gags. The problem with The Hustle is not what it keeps, rather what it has lost. The stars prove themselves game for anything, but the screenplay mistakes throwaway lines for plot and louder for funnier. This comes off like a pale imitation, kept afloat only by the skills of its leads.
Josephine swindles men with class and intelligence, using well-thought out plans to get what she wants. Penny is noisy and brash, tricking men by doing whatever she can to draw attention to herself. Josephine wants to live well. Penny just wants to live. Josephine agrees to teach Penny to be like her, which eventually leads to the two of them competing with each other to con a young tech billionaire out of $500K. It is a simple enough story that gives the stars plenty of occasion for shtick. Unfortunately, it is not very funny this time around.
As I said, The Hustle (89 minutes, plus a post-credits scene) follows its source material closely. The major differences are some of the gags are a little dirtier and a few of the big developments switch from one character to the other. The latter change has a negligible effect, probably because the leads are not as firmly consistent as in Scoundrels, though the intention was likely to surprise those familiar with the story. The former could have been really funny, but the screenplay keeps things at the first level. Nothing is funny simply because it is vulgar. Since Hathaway and Wilson both crush every good line they are given, it seems like a massive missed opportunity.
Hathaway has the Michael Caine role, the sophisticated, controlled master. Wilson is the less thoughtful, risk taking, wildcard student. They are both absolutely perfectly cast. Hathaway has poise and charm, while Wilson brings limitless energy and unpredictability. Sadly, Josephine is so thinly drawn that many of her decisions seem random. Penny is obnoxious to the point that her marks’ belief in her is unbelievable. Putting actors into the right roles is the initial step in a successful comedy. The Hustle never got to step two.
It is not a terrible movie. Just completely unnecessary. It has a handful of decent laughs. It is possible viewers coming in blind may find it to be an okay diversion. If you are going to see The Hustle, do not watch its predecessors first. Or better yet, skip it and watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Amazon Prime.
2 out of 5
Anne Hathaway as Josephine Chesterfield
Rebel Wilson as Penny
Alex Sharp as Thomas Westerburg
Brigitte Desjardins as Ingrid Oliver
Nicholas Woodeson as Albert
Directed by Chris Addison
Screenplay by Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer and Jac Schaeffer