The Hustle is the latest in a glut of remakes and in the subglut of remakes of movies dominated by men that switch the genders of the leading cast. Overt remakes include 2016’s underrated-though-not-by-a-lot Ghostbusters and last year’s Overboard. Then there’s a category of movies that follow up male dominated films without strictly remaking them, like Ocean’s 8 and What Men Want.
The Hustle goes in the first category, adhering closely to the outline of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, itself a remake of the 1964 film Bedtime Story. This time around, the sophisticated scam artist Josephine (Anne Hathaway in her second con-based gender flip role in as many years) deals with boorish small-timer Penny (Rebel Wilson) who threatens to scare prey away from Josephine’s home turf. Their rivalry begets a brief partnership, wagers and finally competition for the money and affection of a visiting billionaire named Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp, though it may as well have been played by Mark Zuckerberg himself, couldn’t hurt his presidential ambitions worse than anything else).
The bones of Hustle/Scoundrels/Bedtime have remained largely intact throughout each iteration and the line between The Hustle and Scoundrels is especially direct. Little of substance has been updated, save an added “0” to dollar amounts here and there and some half-hearted integration of cell phones and Google. Even the setting and blocking of a big reveal at the end has been recreated. Perhaps it’s better that director Chris Addison has a template he can borrow from liberally; left to his own devices in an early scene he’s unable to keep a simple face-to-face conversation on a train from being visually confusing.
Like many modern comedies, The Hustle never gets us invested in the antics but instead provides a series of platforms for the performers to carry. They do so, for the most part. Wilson is a natural take-charge comedian and Hathaway is always game, steering shakier bits away from embarrassment with sheer commitment. She’s even up for some self-parody in a scene where she casually demonstrates to Wilson how to make yourself cry when softening up a mark. Her red eyes and perfectly-timed teardrop match her Oscar-winning moment in Les Miserables.
Ghostbusters had a strong cast but the remake aspect only sandbagged it. In the end the movie attempted some new tricks, but the obligations to the original limited its potential. The Hustle’s problem works backwards: it justifies the update early on, then fails to move its talented leads out of the shadow of the original (and let’s be honest, the shadow is not that deep to being with). “Men are the perfect mark,” Josephine explains, because they always think they are smarter than a woman. This is a fine idea to explore, but from there the story follows the fifty-year-old template.
More showcases for funny women is a great direction for Hollywood. But having one decent thought and then reverting to the old ways would be a depressing trend.