The Hustle (2019)
★ / ★★★★
Chris Addison’s “The Hustle,” a gender-swapped remake of Frank Oz’ “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (which is a remake of Ralph Levy’s “Bedtime Story”), is desert-dry when it comes to creativity in plot, jokes, and characterization. There is no big, genuine laughs to be had here, just sporadic light chuckles—if one were forgiving. About fifteen to twenty minutes in, one realizes that those in charge of the screenplay rested on simply switching genders of the original characters and called it a day. It is a lazy, misfire of a comedy—one with potential to shine had the screenwriters—Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer—actually tried to deliver a modern caper comedy that had something real to say about sexism.
For a picture with two talented performers—Anne Hathaway as a posh con artist with a European accent to match and Rebel Wilson as an American grifter who sticks out like a sore thumb—it is astounding that nothing is done to either character to establish even a semblance of superficially interesting scenarios. We endure Josephine and Penny’s shenanigans as they swindle men of money and jewels, like a series of cheap comic strips that have been rejected for publication. They are low energy. Jokes don’t land. Dialogue is juvenile. Nearly every element looks and sounds manufactured. There are stacks of cash and gemstones glisten, but there is nothing alluring, or exciting, or fun in the interactions among wolves and sheep. The film is on autopilot.
As the work splashes about in an attempt not to drown, the more hyperbolic it becomes. It is supposed to be funny, for instance, that Wilson is contorting her body in small spaces. The reason is because she is fat and fat people look awkward trying to fit in confined areas. She must trip, fall down a flight of stairs, slide across the floor. She must blend in with the trash.
Fat jokes can work, but must the material employ this approach so consistently nearly every time it is desperate? I found it insulting, insensitive, and ineffective as a comedy. The problem is there’s nothing else behind the one-note “jokes.” I give credit to Wilson for her willingness to make fun of her body; and I have enjoyed moments that poke fun of her size in much better movies. At the same time, however, Wilson has to realize she is better than stupid fat jokes, that there is more to her range than Fat Amy—the sooner, the better. She is a comedian with actual talent for acting. It is time she picks projects that are worth her aptitude.
The drama is not believable at all. The premise of two opposite con artists is present on paper, but the relationship is never explored in meaningful ways. Penny and Josephine try to one-up each other, but we do not believe the friendship born out of this clash. Do they like one another? Do they admire each other? The compelling answer is not found in one-word answers, but in the details that follow them. The work must answer questions starting with “How” (“How did Penny and Josephine realize that they were actually more similar than they initially thought?,” “How did Penny and Josephine earn one another’s respect?,” “How does Josephine need Penny, vice-versa?,” “How is their partnership viable?”), but it actually requires effort to be able to answer them. This movie is only interested in parading images, not convincing thoughts and emotions.
It goes to show that just because a movie is female-centric (or male-centric, or whatever-centric) does not automatically mean the story is worth telling. The screenplay must provide enough wrinkles in the expected that justify telling a similar sort of story. Otherwise, the work is reduced to an exercise of pointlessness.