(Hamilton, Ontario) A remake of the 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which was a remake of the 1964 film Bedtime Story), The Hustle doesn’t add anything new aside from flipping the genders of the con artists. Still, this is a fairly funny movie with enthusiastic performances. Sure, the characters are shallow and a lot of the times the movie is straining for laughs by being rather loud but there are enjoyably frantic moments and quips. This isn’t great but it is breezy.
Penny (Rebel Wilson) is a small–time con artist who draws the attention of a bigger con artist, Josephine (Anne Hathaway). Living in an elaborate mansion Josephine stages various cons with the help of her butler Albert (Nicolas Woodeson) and con–artist assistant and crooked police officer, Brigitte (Ingrid Oliver). Josephine takes Penny under her wing to teach her how to work bigger scams, hoping it will just frustrate Penny and make her leave. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect, so the two make a pact that one of them has to fleece an unsuspecting tech guru, Thomas (Alex Sharp). Penny pretends to suffer from hysterical blindness and Josephine poses as a doctor who can treat her, both needing cash for the operation. But Thomas may not be as rich as they first thought and for Penny things get emotionally complicated. Although, Josephine is quite happy to bleed Thomas dry and leave Penny in the dust.
In a two–hander comedy, a key ingredient is the chemistry of the leads and both actresses work well off each other. Wilson’s character Penny is incredibly abrasive which is really what a lot of Rebel Wilson’s characters tend to be anyway. The character is shrill and deliberately annoying but there are so many random jokes and quips thrown out eventually something lands. Once the two try to one up each other some of Penny’s put downs of Josephine are brutally hilarious. The moment when Penny has feelings for the mark feels emotionally inauthentic because this movie is best when it’s nasty.
The most entertaining scam the two ladies pull is what they call the Lord of the Rings con, which veers into absurdity. Josephine pretends to be 18th in line for the English throne, gets engaged to wealthy men and scares them off introducing them to her Penny who plays a deranged sister they keep locked up in the basement. It lets Wilson act crazy like Gollum as Hathaway titters as if her sister is no bother. The gags in the sequence get more and more insane as it goes on which pushes the limits of incredulity but are still funny, so much so that another scene from this sequence is used in a post-credit.
Hathaway generally makes the movie better, bouncing between random accents easily. Her first scene has her natural American accent and then when the con is over she switches to a British accent for Josephine and drops in different accents for other scams. When they are pulling the big con on Thomas she pretends to be Dutch and her treating Penny’s “hysterical blindness” has some good physical comedy like when she encourages Penny to run down a hallway with a loud “Yah!” pointing happily at the doorway. There are some good strange moments like when Josephine sits down and eats what she thinks is a mint on a table and then spits it out smoothly saying “Those are decorative”. One of the best scenes she has doesn’t involve any dialogue at all, she at a gaming table attempting to get Thomas’ attention but Penny shows up bumbling blindly through it as Josephine’s aggravation mounts.
Sharp as the victim is a blank dolt, however he gets to do some interesting stuff by the end. As Josephine’s partner in crime, Oliver’s Brigette, is just a stone–faced exposition piece, however there is a funny moment when Penny is imprisoned and Josephine pretends to negotiate in French about releasing her with Brigette but they’re actually just talking about what they’re going to eat. Albert the Butler is mostly silent but he has some good physical comedy and when he finally talks at the end it’s a good gag.
The direction by Chris Addison is fine, nothing really pops visually aside from maybe a moment when Josephine hollers in impotent rage at the skies, or a training montage that is fun if superfluous, or a nifty stylized opening credit scene. There is also a very nicely composed visual gag where Penny blends into an alleyway easily which is repeated later. Basically, Addison just locks the camera down and lets the actors riff. The screenplay is a basic copy and paste of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but new random asides are pretty good. Amusingly, Penny’s con to get money out of guys by telling them her hot sister has been kidnapped is literally just her relating the plot of the movie Taken.
The Hustle may be a pointless remake yet is an enjoyable romp. This may be a bit wrongheaded at times but at least it is trying. When it drops any pretense of sympathy and just decides to be mean it becomes funnier. V
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