My recommendation for seeing The Hustle? Just rent the original, which is a remake itself. The Hustle, despite its name change and gender swapping, is often a shot-for-shot remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I thought it was strange that the studio was distancing itself from one of the greatest comedies of the 80s with all of the marketing, but now it makes sense. If you’ve seen the first film then you’ve pretty much seen this one so they didn’t want anyone going out and renting the original.
One would think — given the update in time, the skills of the new cast, the switch in gender of the leads, and the fact that a lot of the original films jokes are 30 years old — the film would try to break some new ground. And in fact, when it does diverge from its predecessor is when it actually gets funny, but it stubbornness in adhering to what came before is its greatest downfall, especially as the film comes to a screeching halt at the end, upending its own themes and destroying its feminist message.
Director: Chris Addison
Release Date: May 10, 2019
The Hustle takes nearly everything from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and does it again. Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway) is a successful con artist living on the coast of France where she runs a hustle on rich men who come to the casinos. Penny (Rebel Wilson), a low-rent hustler from America, shows up one day and begins drawing unwanted attention to the conning going on in town. Josephine attempts to make her leave, but instead Penny figures out who she is and asks for Josephine to train her. Josephine agrees, but all in the name of getting rid of Penny, but that plan backfires too, and so, eventually, a wager is made between Penny and Josephine to con $500,000 grand from Thomas Westberg (Alex Sharp), a young Silicon Valley millionaire. The winner gets to stay and the loser has to leave.
It’s a set-up rife for hilarity as the original film showed, but The Hustle relies far too much on that original film. The first 20 minutes of the film are nearly identical to the beginning of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with slight variations on a theme here and there. Jokes are recycled and reused blatantly with little to no change in their execution or timing. Are they still funny? Yes, if you haven’t seen them before or they aren’t mishandled. Wilson is a fantastic comedic actress, but at times she can’t sell a gag Steve Martin pulled off brilliantly. There’s a moment in a jail cell that is the same scene redone, but where Martin hams it up to the perfect extent Wilson’s performance misses the mark. If you haven’t seen the original it’s still funny, but it’s not as funny.
That being said the movie rides on the charm of its two stars, which is considerable, and it’s deviations from the original. Hathaway is quickly carving out a niche for herself as one of the best straight women in comedy as she parlays the antics of Wilson wonderfully. Once the movie finally decides to try out some of its own jokes the pair deliver some truly funny moments. The redux of the medical examination scene is a wonderful twist on the original’s and a sign that at least someone was interested in making a new movie that was funny on its own. Unfortunately, after some brief experimentation with originality the movie veers hard back into a carbon copy, crashing into an ending that seems fundamentally against the feminist ideals the film, and its marketing, want to espouse.
Warning: spoilers are about to be discussed
The ending twists in the exact same way that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did. It turns out that Thomas, the guy they’ve been conning, has actually been conning them the entire time. The problem is that when you’ve swapped the genders that play becomes an entirely different. Now it’s a man swooping in and outsmarting two women, which has completely different connotations than the other way around. You can’t just swap the genders and say that everything has stayed the same because it hasn’t. We don’t live in a bubble where the history of the entire world and gender norms don’t exist and influence perception. Not only that, but the filmmakers for some reason felt the need to cram in a love story between Penny and Thomas. Because we can’t have a female led comedy without it being a romantic comedy as well?
Add to this the fact that Thomas’ gender swap was entirely unneeded. Throughout the film we’re told of an incredible female con-artist named Medusa, but when the big reveal happens it turns out that Thomas is her son. With just a little bit of ingenuity and bravery the film could have diverged from the original’s plot twist and done its own thing with a female Medusa who outsmarts all three of our leads. Instead, the movie simply blunders forward lazily like all you have to do is cast two women in the male roles and you’re suddenly a film about female empowerment. That’s not how it works at all. If you’re swapping genders, which is a great way to breathe new life into something and tackle it from a new angle, you actually have to recognize that the gender swap does something to the characters and plot. If you’re not going to put effort into it, why do it at all?
The Hustle is fun enough as a comedy, but it sucks as a remake and as a female-led film. Swapping the genders of the lead actors and then simply giving one character a line the other character had in the first film isn’t clever, it’s careless. The Hustle had an opportunity to be its own thing and make a comedy statement, but instead it simply rested on its laurels, which eventually gets it into hotter water than it ever needed to be. There’s a really good female con artist comedy in this film if the filmmakers cared about it, but it’s like they wrote half a screenplay, realized they were on deadline and just copy-and-pasted the other half from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It doesn’t work, and in the end it actually gets a little offensive.