Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson swindle the audience in 'The Hustle'
Con artists working the Riviera: Is there a comic premise more old-fashioned yet strangely hardy than that old thing?
Certainly it has possibilities, even in 2019, which explains “The Hustle.” It’s a remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), with Steve Martin, Michael Caine and Glenne Headly, which in turn was a remake of the 1964 romantic farce “Bedtime Story” starring David Niven, Marlon Brando and Shirley Jones. Now we have Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson doing the uptown/downtown act in a female-driven reboot.
The mark this time is a young, Zuckerbergian tech millionaire (Alex Sharp). “The Hustle” invents some new elements while relying heavily on set-ups from the earlier pictures. The primary screenwriter, Jac Schauffer, has every right to work her version the way she likes, and the way the project’s initiator, producer and co-star Wilson, likes it.
Well, it’s a dud. Nothing quite clicks. Premise: Australian con artist Penny (Wilson), the lowbrow, meets posh Josephine (Hathaway), the highbrow, on a train chugging along the Mediterranean.
The seaside paradise of (fictional) Beaumont-sur-mer is Josephine’s territory. Penny wants in on the action; Josephine agrees to take her on as a partner, under the skeptical eye of a local police inspector (Ingrid Oliver) in cahoots with Josephine.
Back in ‘64, “Bedtime Story” sold itself as a merry lark of two male wolves trying “to fleece a mink-lined lamb.” “The Hustle” hands the hustle over to the women, their targets being one loutish, vain male after another. Despite a near-constant stream of lame vulgarity (Wilson’s trademark, I guess), the sex in this sad little sex comedy is neutralized to the point of toothlessness. Whatever I said about “Ocean’s Eight,” I take it back; that was a paragon of wit compared to this movie.
The fun is in the ridiculous impersonations and accents, or should be. Yet Hathaway and Wilson never get a performance rhythm going; first-time feature film director Chris Addison has many episodes of “Veep” to his credit, but here his technique, especially his facility for slapstick, is practically nil. The whole movie looks cheap.
The cost-efficient island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain, substitutes for the actual Riviera, and you wouldn’t notice or care about the secondhand quality of “The Hustle,” or its reliance on the same hermetic casino or villa interiors, if Addison and company developed any energy in their masquerades.
The only touch of class comes from composer Anne Dudley, whose nimble contributions take their cue from the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” arrangement heard in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” when Caine teaches Martin how to swan around like a million bucks.
Remember that montage? Lovely. “The Hustle,” in contrast, galumphs around in circles and looks more like a buck-eighty-three.