Tag Archives: D

THE HUSTLE

Producer: Roger Birnbaum and Rebel Wilson
Director: Chris Addison
Writer: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer and Jac Schaeffer
Stars: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Dean Norris, Ingrid Oliver, Nicholas Woodeson and Casper Chjristensen
Studio: MGM/United Artists

D

The third time around does not prove the charm for this tale of two scam artists who clash over territory and method. Originally made as “Bedroom Story” in 1964 with the oddball pairing of Marlon Brando and David Niven, it fared somewhat better as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Steve Martin and Michael Caine twenty-four years later. Now, after the passage of another three decades, it reemerges in gender-flipped form as “The Hustle,” the weakest iteration yet. The real con job is on the audience.

The contrasting duo is separately introduced. Supremely suave Jacqueline Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway) lives on the South of France in a modern seaside mansion. Her clothes and couture are impeccable, and with the help of her butler Albert (Nicholas Woodeson) and local detective Desjardins (Ingrid Oliver), she fleeces scummy rich guys, like Mathias (Casper Christensen), whom she denudes of his estranged wife’s expensive necklace.

Back in the States, Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) is engaged in small-time scams, conning guys she’s met online—with a phony photo, of course, and a dumb story about a non-existent sister—out of five hundred bucks a pop. When one of her marks turns the cops on her, she decides to decamp to France, where she meets Jacqueline by accident on a train, who tries to send her packing, competition being bad for business. But when Penny finds out, she bullies her way into Jacqueline’s house and demands to become not only her student but her partner.

Before long the two are working together, taking rich dudes like Howard Bacon (played by Dean Norris as the stereotypically drawling Texan blowhard, 1950s vintage to the cleaners by convincing them to bestow engagement rings on Jacqueline and them making them flee in terror when they’re introduced to her crazy “sister” Penny, leaving the rings behind. All goes reasonably well until Jacqueline stiffs Penny on her share of the loot, leading her to sabotage Jacqueline’s further schemes.

To settle their mini-war, the women agree to a bet: they’ll both try to con the same guy, and whoever succeeds will win; the other will leave the Riviera for good. The mark they select, almost by accident, is young Tom Westerburg (Alex Sharp), a geeky American tech whiz who’s flush with cash after selling an app he invented. Jacqueline makes the first approach at the casino, but Penny intervenes, appealing to Tom’s sense of Boy Scout duty by pretending to be blind; Jacqueline responds by pretending to be the only doctor who can cure Penny’s “hysterical” condition, and from that point each woman goes to great slapstick lengths to outpoint the other.

It would be pleasant to report that the farcical goings-on that follow are uproarious, but like everything that’s preceded them, they’re poorly thought-out and limply performed. That’s partially the result of the unimaginative script, which slavishly follows its predecessors and drops the pretense—enunciated early on but soon abandoned—that both women are scamming men to men’s inability to accept women as equals. (At one point Jacqueline says that men are easy to con because they can’t believe that a woman is smarter than they are.)

But blame also falls on director Chris Addison, who is way overindulgent with his actors. Hathaway plays smooth and sexy so broadly that the character becomes a grotesque caricature (think Joan Collins on steroids). As for Wilson, she’s not really an actress at all, simply inserting the abrasive, smart-alecky persona she’s created into whatever role she fills. Many of her sotto voce put-downs sound like snarky improvisations, and her pratfalls are all part of her standard repertoire, so your tolerance of her turn here will pretty much depend on the attitude you come in with: if you already find her amusing, you might enjoy “The Hustle,” at least a bit, but if you think she’s more than a little obnoxious, you’ll find it an endurance test.

As to the supporting cast, Woodeson gets a few smiles with his playfully understated turn, but Oliver is simply boring, while Sharp’s bumbling and stumbling are as painfully overdone as Wilson’s act, and in the final act he becomes even more unfunny. Sharp seems like a nice young fellow, but thus far his screen career has been pretty dismal (check out his previous performance in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”—or don’t).

As to the movie’s look, the exteriors (shot in Majorca, the Balearic Islands and Spain) are attractive, but Michael Coulter’s glaring cinematography doesn’t really do them—or the interiors, or Emma Fryer’s costumes—justice. Anthony Boys’s editing, moreover, feels sloppy; it’s as though some necessary connective scenes were simply omitted. Not that one’s likely to complain; in this case, more would most definitely be less.

At the start of “The Hustle,” Penny escapes police pursuit by wearing a shiny black dress that allows her to blend in with trash bags piled up in an alley. By the end of the movie, you might be inclined to believe that “The Hustle” belongs in one of them.

HIGH LIFE

Producer: Andrew Lauren, D.J. Gugenheim, Claudia Steffen, Christoph Friedel, Laurence Clerc, Olivier Thery Lapiney, Oliver Dungey and Klaudia Smieja
Director: Claire Denis
Writer: Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell, Gloria Obianyo, Scarlett Lindsey, Jessie Ross and Victor Banerjee
Studio: A24 Films

D

Claire Denis’ “High Life” will probably elicit descriptions like “mind-bending” and “mind-blowing” from her admirers, but “mind-bruising” would be more accurate—a more pretentious and benumbing film would be hard to imagine. Of course similar brickbats were thrown at another ruminative sci-fi film back in 1968, but Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” defied detractors and has stood the test of time to become an acknowledged classic. One doubts that Denis’ outer-space oddity will fare nearly as well fifty years down the road.

Though set in the enormity of space, the atmosphere is deliberately claustrophobic. The characters are all members of a crew aboard a vessel that, from the outside, looks like a storage crate that’s fallen off a terrestrial cargo ship and on the inside is cramped and uninviting. (François-Renaud Labarthe was production designer.) The lack of amenities may be explained by the fact that all the occupants are criminals, convicts who have volunteered for a mission that could end in their deaths but, should it conclude successfully, can mitigate their sentences. Their purpose is to investigate whether, as some scientists believe, energy can be extracted from a black hole.

The crew consists of both men (Robert Pattinson, André Benjamin, Lars Eidinger and Ewan Mitchell) and women (Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran and Gloria Obianyo), but among them two stand out. One is Binoche’s Dr. Dibs, a creepy scientist in a white smock who conducts experiments on procreation by collecting semen from the males (who provide it in what’s called the vessel’s “F***box”) and inseminating the women, who are tied down for the procedure; the results are radioed back to earth.

The other is Monte (Pattinson), who insists on remaining celibate—a decision he reached at least at some point in the journey. At the beginning of the film, he is the lone living adult on the craft, caretaker to an infant (Scarlett Lindsey), whom he cares for obsessively while going about the business of keeping the ship operating. From this point “High Life” tells its story—or fragments of a story, which the viewer is expected to piece together as best he can–via scattered flashbacks.

Much of that narrative is simply tedious, just as “2001” is thought to be by many unsatisfied people. But there are elements that are deeply disturbing, like the material dealing with what the crew experience in connection with Dibs’s experiments or a long, truly ugly sequence in which one of the women, strapped to her bed, is violently attacked by one of the men before other crew members intervene to stop him with an equal measure of violence. The deaths are more discreetly handled, but the sight of bodies piled up, waiting to be tossed out of the airlock to swim in the void, has a kind of hallucinatory power.

Set against the episodes of human depravity are the scenes in which Monte coos lovingly to the baby, although even here his banter has a strangely perverse quality: after all, one of the first cheerful bits of advice he mouths jovially to the child is “Never drink your own urine, or eat your own shit, even if it’s been recycled,” adding that doing so represents “a taboo,” a word he then repeats as a kind of jingle. The film’s close, with the child grown into a young woman, has an air of triumph as the black hole is reached (one of the occasional images, in a film that’s generally prosaic—indeed, positively unpleasant—from a visual standpoint, despite being shot by Yorick Le Saux, that really catches the eye), even though it presages doom.

Denis’ devotees will undoubtedly detect profundities in “High Life”—about the alienation that characterizes the human condition, the penchant for violence in mankind, the peculiarities inherent in material things (especially the human body)—but to most whatever messages she wants to convey will seem muddled and opaque, particularly since she and editor Guy Lecorne have chosen to present what passes for narrative in a chronologically scrambled sequence that feels totally arbitrary. It must be admitted, though, that Stuart Staples’ muted, droning score adds to the weirdness of what is only in the most general terms a genre piece.

Still, one has to respect the continuing dedication of Pattinson and Binoche to challenging material that would doubtlessly drive other actors to flee. None of the other cast members particularly distinguish themselves, though Lindsey is undeniably cute.

With a small body of work, Claire Denis has built a cult following, who will probably praise “Life” highly. In reality, though, this journey into space is not just obscure and unpleasant, but extraordinarily dull besides.