With Elizabeth Holmes, dueling Fyre Festival documentaries, and the college admissions scandal, 2019 is the year of the scammer. You’d think the timing would be perfect for a gender-swapped remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” the ’80s comedy about competing con artists. But haha, jokes on you – and anyone who pays to see “The Hustle.” I saw it for free and still feel scammed by what is sure to be one of the worst movies of the year.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was itself a remake of the largely forgotten 1964 film “Bedtime Story” starring David Niven and Marlon Brando. This time around, Anne Hathaway steps into the part last played by Michael Caine, while Rebel Wilson gets the Steve Martin role from the 1988 Frank Oz film. All three versions of the movie center on the low class vs. high class and short con vs. long con dynamic between the two main characters, but here that contrast takes on a nasty edge. “The Hustle” constantly makes fun of Wilson’s appearance, and her character’s personality traits – dumb, lower-class, and gross – align with the worst of fat-phobic stereotypes. “Veep” helmer Chris Addison makes his feature directorial debut here, and while no one would call that HBO series good-natured, at least it’s funny in its skewering of idiocy and bureaucracy, which is more than can be said for this flat, incompetent film. (Is it even a film? I don’t know anymore. 90 minutes of this broke me.)
The jokes about Wilson’s character’s appearance begin in the opening scene. We meet Penny Rust (Wilson) just as her internet date (“Veep”‘s Timothy Simons in a cameo) does, and he is disappointed that she’s not the buxom beauty in the pics she sent him. She tells him it’s her friend and tries to get money for her friend’s boob job. Classy. (Also . . . what?) Next, we see her on a train in Europe, where she scams a guy for a free lunch, and the movie trades in Martin’s order of multiple beers in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” for Penny’s order of multiple pieces of cake. You know, because fat girls love cake. (Ugh.) Anyway, Penny catches the attention of Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway), a sophisticated British scammer heading back to her home in fictional French Riviera town Beaumont-Sur-Mer.
Josephine can’t quite shake Penny, so she decides to teach her a few of her tricks and then send her on her way. However, Penny can’t be gotten rid of so easily, and the two women end up competing to see who can bilk hoody-wearing tech millionaire Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) for half a million dollars first. The loser will be forced to leave Beaumont-Sur-Mer forever, while the winner gets to stay and continue to con the rich male tourists who arrive in town. Penny pretends to have a case of hysterical blindness to win Westerburg’s sympathy, while Josephine responds by playing a German doctor who has the cure with a $500,000 price tag.
“The Hustle” is a beat-for-beat remake of its predecessor, following each plot point of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” all the way through its conclusion, but with none of the humor intact. The gender-swapped script and casting means that all of the marks here are men, targeted by Josephine for how they treat women. And why do their cons work? “Because no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is,” says Josephine. *spoiler warning* But both of those ideas are undercut by the movie’s ending, which reveals that the Mark Zuckerberg stand-in is actually a con artist himself. That twist worked in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” with would-be victim Janet (the wonderful Glenne Headly) pulling one over on the men in a satisfying turn, but here the women getting one-upped by a bro is just another false note in this tone-deaf karaoke performance. *end spoilers*
“The Hustle” is profoundly stupid and it treats its audience as though they’re even less intelligent than it is. There are holes big enough in the script to drive a Ferrari through. There’s no sense of time passing, though minutes in the theater creep by. A legendary hustler named “Medusa” is mentioned repeatedly, but never seen. We don’t learn the cause of Penny’s supposed hysterical blindness, and no one within the film seems too concerned with it either.
Wilson is fine, though the script relies too heavily on the concept that she’s an unattractive troll rather than how naturally funny she is at both physical verbal comedy elsewhere. Hathaway was the best thing about last year’s solidly entertaining “Ocean’s 8,” and she’s good enough here, other than a terrible British accent that seemed so intentionally bad that I thought it would be revealed as fake at the end of the movie (it wasn’t). I can see the top-line concept of a female-driven remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” attracting both Hathaway and Wilson, who’s also as a producer, but their involvement makes no sense if either of them read the script.
There’s little that’s purely funny on the page, and the rare joke that does land does it as a credit to the actresses’ delivery, not the screenplay. The script is credited to four people: three are writers from the first two movies –Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, and Dale Launer –with Jac Schaeffer joining this time around. She wrote that abysmal “Frozen” short that played before “Coco,” “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” but even that was far better than this misery. I was also surprised that “The Hustle” was written by a woman; there’s such clear disdain for its female characters throughout, casting them in stereotypical roles rather than giving them any layers of depth.
There’s a scene in “The Hustle” where Hathaway’s Josephine feeds Wilson’s Penny a cracker that she’s just swabbed inside the rim of a toilet. It’s a truly unpleasant moment for everyone involved, but at least it gives critics the most appropriate metaphor for the shit-encrusted snack that we’ve just been forced to eat. [D-]