Warning: This review contains spoilers for both Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Hustle.
The Hustle opens with two-bit con artist Penny (Rebel Wilson) catfishing a boorish man in a New York City bar. He thinks he’s meeting a sleek hot blonde with 32DDs, but when he’s confronted with Penny’s bouffant hairstyle and plus-size figure, he looks visibly disgusted. That’s all part of the plan, of course — Penny whips out a photo of her poor “sister,” who she says desperately needs a large sum to pay for breast augmentation so that she won’t feel self-conscious when meeting the man of her dreams. Best-case scenario, the guy ponies up, and Penny adds a neat sum to her nest egg. Or, as in this case, the police burst in and she hides in the trash outside the building in order to escape.
It’s an important scene, because later in the film, Penny explains that the man’s look of revulsion is her justification for robbing him blind. The idea that men deserved to be scammed is one that pops up repeatedly in this gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the classic 1988 comedy starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Where the original allowed its protagonist to simply scam because, hey, why not, the latest version gives its leading ladies a motive: Men are shitty to women, so why shouldn’t they be fined for it?
Wilson said as much to Entertainment Weekly back in April. “With Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, they were playing into women’s romantic ideas about men and they were kind of taking advantage of silly women — we’re taking advantage of men who have actively harmful ideas of what women are,” she said. “So I do think maybe, in that sense, it’s a little more pointed.”
But while seeing men pay up for their misogyny is satisfying on a superficial feminist level, that ethos is ultimately disappointing. Why do women need a reason to be con artists? Why can’t they just don their best fancy socialite hats and go wild, simply because?
Directed by Chris Addison, from a screenplay by Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer and Jac Shaeffer, The Hustle keeps along the same plot lines as its predecessor (itself a remake 1964’s Bedtime Story, starring David Niven and Marlon Brando).
Tired of making ends meet with low-rent scams, Penny sets her sights on bigger and better things, in this case the French Riviera town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, which she’s heard is rife with rich men behaving badly. The problem is, Beaumont-sur-Mer already has a resident con artist: Josephine (Anne Hathaway), a high-class scammer with a suspect accent, and impeccable taste. Instantly at odds, the two soon realize they both have things to learn from each other. And to keep things interesting, they make a bet: whoever can extract $500,000 from a sheepish tech millionaire Thomas (Alex Sharpe) gets to stay in town and keep milking the fat cats. The loser gets out of dodge.
It’s all fun and games until Penny realizes that Thomas is actually a nice guy, the rare gem that makes sifting through all the dipshits worth it. And knowing that, is it okay to scam him?
Wilson and Hathaway make a great team. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Hathaway can hold her own in a comedy, and their chemistry is palpable. An early con partnership, known as the “Lord of the Rings” job, involves Josephine posing as a down-on-her-luck British aristocrat to nab a rich suitor, who then leaves her with the diamond once she introduces them to Penny-as-Hortense, her unhinged sister who believes she’s a medieval princess. It’s the best sequence in the film, and Hathaway’s faux mid-Atlantic accent, so distracting in the film’s trailer, works wonders in this more campy setting. The movie works best when the two are sparring against each other.
But they deserve better than a movie that feels like it’s just checking boxes, and an ending that’s completely off. Like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Hustle ends with the scammers being scammed. In the original, this was a cheeky twist — the supposedly silly woman (the late, great Glenne Headly) was using these so-called brilliant con-men men all along. But in this case, Thomas ends up on top, leaving us with the sense that all this has been for naught.
Ultimately, Hathaway and Wilson’s real-life fight to ensure the film’s R-rating strikes a more subversive stance than anything we see on screen. And that’s a dirty, rotten shame.