The quickest way to encapsulate The Hustle is with a quote from 1996’s Multiplicity: “You know how when you make a copy of a copy, it’s not as sharp as… well… the original.”
The Hustle is a gender-flipped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story. If the original film starring Marlon Brando and David Niven isn’t as well-known as the 1988 version starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, that’s partly due to the latter being a staple of mid-90s cable programming.
Very few changes have been made from one version of the story to the next, though the few changes made to The Hustle are confounding. The central core of two con artists, here Josephine and Penny (Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson), sparring in the south of France remains intact. The marks and most of the cons are generally the same as well. However, along with the gender switch comes some changes in the gender politics.
While Dirty Rotten Scoundrels shows sympathetic women being taken advantage of by preying men, The Hustle shows women exploiting the weaknesses of men for monetary gain. Neither gender is painted in a good light here, but the satisfaction of these two women pulling one over on the men by exploiting their inclination to want to be saviors feels far more mean-spirited than it need be. If we’re supposed to form some sort of superficial affection for both Josephine and Penny, that never happens.
The worst adjustment to the formula has to be the lowering of the comedic brow. The jokes in here could, and should, come at the expense of either the unearned egos of the con women or the ease of the separation between the mark and his money. The situation brings enough opportunities for laughs at anyone’s expense, but for some unknown reason, The Hustle resorts to toilet humor. Literal toilet humor. Wilson is certainly a maestro when it comes to physical comedy, and she gives it everything she has here, but the obvious and ill-fitting gags don’t belong and just highlight how unfunny the rest of the film is.
Hathaway is also admirably committed to her role. Switching accents from one sentence to the next, carrying her body with varying degrees of physical confidence, and being an all-around class chameleon highlights the fact that this role is a perfect match for her wide range. It’s unfortunate that her prowess is being used in such a poorly written role.
This is not to say that toilet humor is always bad or that mixing it with highbrow yuks is a consistently doomed mission, but in The Hustle this mix never really works. Pity that Wilson and Hathaway are so aggressively wasted.