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 Originally made as “Bedroom Story” in 1964 with the oddball pairing of Marlon Brando and David Niven, it fared somewhat better as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Steve Martin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.