The term “dirty, rotten scoundrels” may not get uttered in THE HUSTLE, but make no mistake, the new film is a faithful remake of the 1988 comedy of that name which starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin. It itself was an update of the 1964 farce BEDTIME STORY that starred David Niven and, in a rare comedic role, Marlon Brando. In this take on the material, the bad boy con artists competing with each other in the south of France have been replaced by bad girls. Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson assume the roles, and while they’re not quite up to the level of the others, they acquit themselves nicely in this often amusing adaptation.
Beat for beat, scene for scene, this is one loyal remake, even though the two leads are now women. In fact, it’s so close to the previous films, original scripters Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning receive story and screenplay credits, as does Dale Launer, the writer of the ’88 version. Screenwriter Jac Schaefer softens her adaptation here by giving the grifters a mission to thwart sexist, pawing men with a savior complex. Such tweaks add a #MeToo flavor to the proceedings, yet they also take a lot of the edge off the story. Meanwhile, Hathaway and Wilson do their best to ensure their characters’ elaborate criminality is funnier than preachy.
Hathaway plays Josephine, an elegant, British hustler duping easy marks in the casinos of the French Riviera town of Beamont-sur-Mer. She assumes all kinds of guises to do so, including a dumb bunny American persona that a sleazy playboy (Casper Christensen) is all too eager to bed and rob. Instead, she ends up turning the tables on him by substituting an expensive bracelet in his possession with a counterfeit one. A local cop (Ingrid Oliver) is in cahoots with Josephine and together they ensure those duped are none the wiser and escorted out of town quickly.
The Oscar-winning star has a ball in the part, yet at 36, Hathaway is a lot younger than Niven and Caine were when they did the roles at 54 and 55, respectively. Still, she summons a similar élan, bearing, and seductiveness as those two did, while cutting loose in a physical performance that harkens back to her PRINCESS DIARIES days. (With her gifts for comedy and singing, some producer out there who should put Hathaway in a reboot of MAME.)
The big departure from the original material lies in how the story sides more with Wilson’s low-rent character Penny. In the previous two films, the loyalties leaned toward Niven and Caine, but here, the film asks us to connect more with the penny-ante grifter. The film even starts with Penny pulling a con on a Tinder hook-up played by Timothy Simons. He’s playing a sexist pig close to his role on VEEP, and from there the die is cast that we cheer on Penny.
That may be due to the fact that Wilson is one of the executive producers here, and while it’s fine for her to develop such an ideal project as this, her part shouldn’t be softened to near pathos. In fact, even when she’s supposed to be at her most deplorable, the film pulls its punches regarding her character. If there’s one thing a dark comedy doesn’t need, it’s asking us to feel sorry for such a vulgarian.
The missed opportunities are apparent in two crucial parts of the film. The first is when Josephine agrees to tutor Penny in the fine art of the long con, and they cook up an elaborate ruse to bilk a Texas oilman (a completely unfunny Dean Norris). Penny is supposed to be Josephine’s psycho sister, but the best the film can offer is her acting like Ophelia from HAMLET while knocking about with mannequins dressed in Victorian clothing. It’s mildly amusing but cannot hold a candle to Steve Martin’s indelible turn as “Ruprecht the monkey boy” who in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS asks to go to the bathroom while at the dinner table and proceeds to urinate in his pants while sitting there. This film needs more of such outrageousness, but it shies away from it.
Things improve when Penny and Josephine become rivals again and fight over a vacationing tech millionaire (Alex Sharp). They wager that the first person to separate the Mark Zuckerberg-esque character from $500,000 will get to stay and rule the roost of the Riviera. To gain his sympathies, Penny pretends to be blind in need of medical treatment that costs half a million. Josephine counters by pretending to be a Dutch physician who can cure Penny of her hysterical blindness. Watching the two one-up each other is the funniest part of the movie, yet it doesn’t come close to the vicious slapstick that Caine and Martin engaged in.
There, Martin’s character pretended to be a cripple bound to a wheelchair. Caine assumed a physician who resorted to caning Martin’s legs to try and get the feeling back in them. Watching Martin have to swallow the pain, pretending his lame legs experience no discomfort was one of the funniest scenes ever put on film. (Brando’s tears were pretty funny too.) Yet, in this remake, all Josephine really does is blow into Penny’s eyes to see if she can feel anything. You tell me what’s funnier.
By the time, Penny is falling in love, and milking scenes for a lump in our throat, the film starts to stall. Granted, director Chris Addison keeps things moving along briskly, but he should’ve injected more teeth into the show like he does when he directs VEEP on HBO. Wilson and Hathaway do well when they’re trading jibes back and forth, but their quips needed to be sharper. Wilson is always funny barreling around in scenes with her typical “bull in a china shop” style, but she’s actually been more outrageous in the PITCH PERFECT trilogy. Even Sharp does little to make his character interesting, let alone comical. The late, great Glenne Headley made the mark she played opposite Caine and Martin markedly more zany and attractive.
The original title for the film was NASTY WOMEN, a riff on Donald Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton in their last debate together in 2016. The fact that the powers that be changed the moniker to the more generic THE HUSTLE suggests punches were pulled throughout the production. If only the film had let their leads be as dirty and rotten as their male counterparts in previous adaptations, this would be a more worthy outing. That’s not misogyny, that’s comedy.