Buried in The Hustle – a film with an implausible plot, mediocre characters and settings out of the 1970s version of Charlie’s Angels – are two pieces of truth about gender politics.
The first comes when Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway), a tall and willowy con artist, describes her methodology to Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson), who’s stumbled into town. “Men like to believe they’re saving you,” she says. And ain’t that the truth.
The other is late in the film, when Rust lets the curtain slip on her motivation. She describes her early con artist days when she catfished guys online who wouldn’t talk to her if they ever saw her in person. Deep down, Rust is hurt by the wound experienced by every woman at some point – the one inflicted when we’re ignored for not fitting an aesthetic ideal. With her cons, Rust grabs people by the hair and makes them pay attention, working around their shallowness by playing their egos against them. As for Chesterfield’s origin story, that’s anyone’s guess.
This is the sum total of what’s interesting to glean from The Hustle. It’s a remake of the 1980s movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which starred Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Chesterfield lives and cons in a little town on the French Riviera, and she’s made millions doing it. Aside from two people she keeps on retainer/staff, she maintains a solitary existence. Her cons are largely aimed at archetypal men – the jovial Texan billionaire, the dirty old rich man, etc.
Also solitary is Rust, and as with a few Rebel Wilson portrayals, it’s hard to tell whether the film is laughing with or at her. She wears stretch jeans, pastel T-shirts with sardonic sayings, liquid eyeliner and an ever-present Bump It. There are jokes about Wilson’s diet (“I’m salad intolerant,” she says at one point), and much of the comedy is derived from the difference in class and physicality of the two main characters. Neither is presented as superior, exactly, but when it comes to Wilson’s career, it’s a premise that’s wearing thin.
After a few pointless training montages, the women decide to hustle a tech billionaire (Alex Sharp), and that’s where the wheels come off. I won’t get into details, but no one would ever fall for it, and it’s hard to believe they think they’re pulling it off. It just gets more absurd as the film goes on, even by just-for-fun comedy standards. It’s pretty ableist too, so if you’re visually impaired, you might not want to bother.
Wilson, who used to be a law student, co-produced this. Maybe she’s really into this kind of comedy, or maybe the money is tempting. She feels due for a real role though, one that doesn’t rely on her mere presence as a visual gag. Isn’t It Romantic was pretty good for that. This one, you can skip. 2/5
The Hustle (2019)
Does it pass the Beschdel Test?: Yes.
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Dean Norris.
Directed by: Chris Addison.
Written by: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, Jac Schaeffer.