Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway in The Hustle (Photo: MGM)

★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Chris Addison
STARS Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson

That The Hustle is a remake of director Frank Oz’s 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels can be deduced merely from the film’s tagline: “They’re Giving Dirty Rotten Men a Run for Their Money.” Itself a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story (starring Marlon Brando and David Niven) and initially conceived as a vehicle for the post-“Dancing in the Street” duo of David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a delightful comedy featuring an animated performance by Steve Martin, an endearing performance by Glenne Headly, and an out-and-out terrific performance by Michael Caine.

Alas, “delightful,” “animated,” “endearing,” and “terrific” aren’t words that anyone will be employing to describe The Hustle, a dismal effort that slavishly follows the plot of its immediate predecessor yet somehow fails to locate the laughs in the material. The ’88 version cast Caine as a suave British con artist whose operation in a luxurious French seaside community is threatened by the arrival of a boorish American swindler (Martin). Realizing that the town ain’t big enough for the both of them, they place a wager: Whoever can wrangle $50,000 out of a naïve and newly arrived American millionaire (Headly) gets to remain while the other has to set up shop elsewhere.

The Hustle largely follows this template, with Hathaway playing Caine, Wilson co-starring as Martin, and Tony Award-winning actor Alex Sharp appearing as Headly. Clearly, the gender reversal is meant to set this film apart, but except for a line from Hathaway’s Josephine Chesterfield about how women make better con artists than men because “no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is,” director Chris Addison and scripter Jac Schaeffer take little advantage of the swap. Instead, the first half of the picture is basically a carbon copy of the ’88 model, the primary difference being the vulgar asides offered by Wilson’s Penny Rust (e.g. Martin’s Freddy Benson didn’t feel the need to lasciviously lick the bars on his jail cell to demonstrate that he’d be willing to go down on a member of the same sex). The second half offers a few modest changes that reduce rather than enhance the comedic value — for instance, having Penny pretend to be blind to pull off a scam isn’t as effective as Freddy pretending to be crippled, and it doesn’t even really make sense in the context of some scenes which require visual communication. There’s also a feeble romance added to a tale that really has no use for one.

Wilson is a gifted comedienne — I particularly enjoyed her work in Bridesmaids and the first Pitch Perfect — but her plus-size means that lazy writers will always turn to fat jokes when they can’t think of anything witty. That’s the case here, and while Wilson is ever the trouper, she really deserves to be in a movie that doesn’t feel compelled to make a reference to her character’s sizable bowel movements. For her part, Hathaway is generally better at reacting to the comedy than being the comedy — think of The Devil Wears Prada or Get Smart or especially Rachel Getting Married — which means her turn here is particularly undernourished. When her character elects to impersonate a German doctor or a British princess or a Southern airhead (“You’re Danish? Like the pastry?”), Hathaway should be loose and limber; instead, rigor mortis sets in, a condition also indicative of the stiff production surrounding her.

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