Hats off to Anne Hathaway. In the past three years or so, the actress we used to revel in dunking on has made an increasingly interesting set of career choices, from the criminally underseen Colossal to her amusingly campy turn in Ocean’s 8 to the absolutely bonkers Serenity, which Kristy covered for us in great detail. And The Hustle is another stretching-her-skills turn for Hathaway, who switches between an impressive array of languages and an even flashier selection of pantsuits for her turn as a sophisticated and haughty con artist.
Her self-serious, urbane air clashes nicely with Rebel Wilson’s gustily vulgar turn, and together the two of them make The Hustle pleasantly uncouth. These women belittle each other and scheme against one another and compete in a way that demonstrates their contrasting approaches to using men to get what they want. Because what they want is money, of course, and what they’ll do to get it is most anything that punishes men for their sexism and their shallowness and provides the women with enough to dress nicely and eat nicely and live nicely. Just a few hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars or whatever. The essentials!
The Hustle is a remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Michael Caine in the Hathaway role and Steve Martin in the Wilson role, and that film from director Frank Oz, who would secure his cinematic legacy with 1991’s What About Bob?, was itself a remake. The original original was 1964’s Bedtime Story, with David Niven in the Caine and Hathaway role and Marlon Brando in the Martin and Wilson role, and you can see the pattern here—each of these previous films centered the narrative on male con artists.
This time around, The Hustle focuses on Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway) and Penny Rust (Wilson, who thankfully hasn’t said anything Extremely Wrong this press tour), who cross paths on a train to Beaumont-sur-Mer on the French Riviera, a town advertised as a “playground for the rich” in a magazine article Penny picks up while fleeing from police. That piece sent Penny packing for Europe, where she’s using a Taken-style sob story about her missing sister and her auctioned-off virginity to snag free meals (with three slices of cake!) and spending money from well-off “nice” guys. These wealthy men would never look at Penny twice but will gladly support her as she tries to save her hot, busty sister from evil bearded men on yachts (cough, Muslims, the movie means Muslims), and so Penny has no qualms taking their money.
Witnessing one of these exchanges, Josephine realizes that the miniature empire she runs in Beaumont-sur-Mer—where she has a small crew of people who help execute her cons, including a local police detective (Ingrid Oliver, from Doctor Who)—is in jeopardy. The town isn’t big enough for two female hustlers, and so Josephine first tries to drive out Penny, and then to train her. The two have wildly different styles, and a wager is eventually made: The first woman who can get $500,000 out of a tech millionaire, Thomas (Alex Sharp), gets to stay in Beaumont-sur-Mer. What follows are increasingly elaborate and bizarre displays of the women one-upping each other and trying to reveal the other as a fraud while securing their own financial windfall.
I haven’t seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Bedtime Story, and so I walked into The Hustle blind—and I would suggest that if you can stay away from spoilers, do so. The movie follows the plots of the other films so closely (which I now realize from some Wiki-ing) that I’m not sure how enjoyable it would be if you could guess every beat coming. And while the movie’s overall plot is, like so many heist movies, somewhat predictable, I appreciated the surprises I received from going in totally unaware of what was to come, from the various double-crosses to the introduction of certain characters that take the narrative in increasingly ludicrous directions.
How women feel about these gender-swapped remakes, a la this film and last year’s Ocean’s 8, in which Hathaway also co-starred, certainly varies. They are unarguably derivative in that they fail to provide original stories for women and instead repackage narratives initially crafted for men, but to the credit of The Hustle, it’s at least written by a woman, Jac Schaeffer, who also helped pen Captain Marvel. Schaeffer’s script provides an enjoyable raunchiness to this redo that helps sell the women’s rivalry and their prevailing disdain toward men. We all know from Wilson’s previous roles, including February’s Isn’t It Romantic, that she can effectively walk the line between disgusting and hilarious, and she’s fully on here; I lost it when she disparagingly called a priceless fossil a “dinosaur clitoris,” or when she went tit for tat with Veep’s relentlessly misogynistic Timothy Simons after catfishing him.
And both Wilson and Hathaway engage in self-aware physical humor that demonstrates their characters’ knowledge of how people view them, and how they can use that to their advantage. It’s in the way Hathaway tries to grind up on some guy while maintaining spiteful eye contact with Wilson, whose character is pretending to be blind at the time; it’s how Wilson’s choice of clothing allows her to blend into the background, even in an array of trash bags. Hathaway’s Josephine considers the term “a good man” to be an oxymoron; she feels no guilt over conning men who cheat on their wives or who think that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into the United States or who have destroyed the environment. In contrast, Wilson’s Penny just wants to have a good time—she doesn’t want men to fall in love with her, which is Josephine’s M.O., but she wants to make them feel bad for not doing so.
To the credit of Schaeffer’s script, the film doesn’t come down one way or another on judging either of these women, and director Chris Addison—who has directed more than a dozen episodes of Veep, another pop culture product in which characters derive vicious glee from insulting each other—does a solid job capturing these women’s differences without prioritizing one over the other. The entire premise of the film is that you’ll sympathize with these criminals, or at least understand what societal ills they think they’re personally rebelling against with their schemes, and there’s spunk to the story when the women don’t get along, when Josephine calls Penny a “moon-faced troll” and Penny fires back that Josephine is a “animatronic cocktease.”
If your idea of feminism is that women don’t need to blindly support each other solely on the basis of gender, that they can be competitive and conniving and still each individually contribute in the war against men, and if you think the stank that Wilson puts on the word “tits” is like no one else in the business, then The Hustle will probably work for you. Take joy in how Hathaway’s tone finds that perfect medium between a sneer and a smile and how she can weaponize those Disney princess eyes into a glare or a tear. Be amazed at how zealously Wilson plays the part of a deranged Ophelia—forced to wear a chastity belt!—in a scam the women call the Lord of the Rings. The gender-swapped The Hustle may be born out of a lazy idea, but its misandrist energy carries it along nicely.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/MGM, Epk.tv/MGM, Epk.tv/MGM