Alright… we know where the box office’s focus has been lately. Marvel’s biggest superhero team is currently kicking butt in the theaters. However, another crop of features comes today out as the summer movie season really gets going. It seems like we just saw Rebel Wilson in the Valentines Day comedy Isn’t It Romantic. Well, the Australian actress once again hits theaters this weekend with a potentially interesting female led property. Will The Hustle pay off?
The Hustle follows Penny (Rebel Wilson), a young con artist who finds herself in a battle of wits against her sophisticated and elegant cohort Josephine (Anne Hathaway) over a young tech millionaire, Thomas (Alex Sharp). The movie is a remake of the 1988 comedy classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which is itself a remake of a 1964 film Bedtime Story. Chris Addison directs from a script by Jac Schaeffer, Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning and Dale Launer.
Watching the film, fans of the 1988 version will find the story immediately familiar. The Hustle can best be described as a feminist take on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It isn’t a reimagining unfortunately. In fact, it’s so similar to the previous versions that the original writers retained their script credit on this one. This is at best, a rehash.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. The general premise of the script feels pleasantly timed, watching powerful women take back the power from the men who’ve exploited and played on our emotions for millennia. As Josephine mentions late in the story, “No man will ever believe anyone is smarter than he is”.
Now, could this same thing be accomplished in an original script, as opposed to simply xeroxing an already well-trod narrative? Most certainly. The prevalence of remakes has been discussed a number of times in the last year, and will definitely continue as we delve deeper into the summer movie season. Remakes are cheap and easy to market; however, as The Hustle proves, it isn’t always the best method for telling a compelling story.
Anne Hathaway is an actress who’s been on the receiving end of a lot of pop culture crap. While she’s been a mainstay for decades (The Princess Diaries premiered in 2001, kids), since her Oscar win in 2012, she’s been branded with well-familiar terms like “unlikable”. Well, Anne Hathaway shows easily with her take on Josephine (as well as Daphne in Ocean’s 8) that she doesn’t need any of you haters. The actress is doing some fascinating character work and is having an absolute blast at the same time. Her colorful portrayal of Josephine is the strength of the film’s characterizations. She sinks her teeth into the character, playing with some fun accents and creating a savvy and interesting woman at the same time.
However, there are plenty of opportunities where the character development for Josephine falls a bit flat. There are moments where we want to learn more about who this woman is, but it never quite comes to fruition. The script constructs a potentially interesting relationship in her pairing with Inspector Dejardins (Ingrid Oliver), but the story never delves below the surface. This is a trend which continues throughout the duration of The Hustle, and for a movie which has been remade so many times, this shouldn’t be happening.
By the same token, it would be really nice to see Rebel Wilson start to experiment a bit. In this movie, the comedian takes her standard persona… the lovably clumsy fat girl and stretches it out for 94 minutes. While she’s absolutely great at what she does, as we try and develop more female centered stories, it would be nice to dive deeper than the “fat girls are funny” caricature. Characters like Penny only serve to maintain the filmic stereotype that a woman who is outside the Hollywood norm (read: Anne Hathaway) can only be a comedian or the supportive and usually cake-eating best friend. There are plenty of opportunities to inject layers beyond the slapstick physical comedy, but Wilson never quite capitalizes on these. This is the same Rebel Wilson we’ve seen in every role the actress tackles. Now that she has some staying power, it would be nice to see her pull a Melissa McCarthy and step beyond her comfort zone.
Applause must be given to The Hustle’s costume designer Emma Fryer, who dresses up the cast in fun, luxurious and elegant costumes. There’s a distinct eye for the costuming in this film, everything about it looks amazing (particularly Anne Hathaway)… like A Simple Favor level of gorgeous. There’s a lot visually to love about The Hustle.
Ultimately, the character development as a whole is weak. Beyond Hathaway and Wilson, the supporting cast struggles to stand out in the material. The men in the narrative are in particular a dime a dozen. Young actor Alex Sharp comes the closest as “Thomas” the young tech millionaire who the ladies set to con. A relative newcomer to Hollywood, the young actor showcases some real charisma and likability in the role. Sharp brings a wide-eyed innocence in his portrayal. This makes him a joy to watch; however, it seems slightly miscast in the construction of The Hustle. When looking at the movie as a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, this element of the character seems to be directly stemming from Glenne Headly’s innocent portrayal of Janet (Sharp’s character in the gender swapped remake). However, Sharp comes off feeling incredibly young opposite Wilson and Hathaway’s far more powerful performances. Even when the film is apparently shooting for a romantic plot point, this misfire in casting hinders the story’s success.
When examining questions of timely subject matter, those who have seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels will know the plot revolves around one of the con men faking a disability in the interest of furthering the con job. In the contemporary remake, Penny is not in a wheelchair as her predecessor was. This time, she’s faking blindness. This in particular is a plot point which hasn’t aged well. We shied away from the problems thirty years ago, in contemporary culture, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Ultimately, in the construction of the plot as is, the disability itself becomes a joke. Most of the characters aren’t in on the con, so to the world of the film, Penny is blind for a portion of the narrative. It instances like this making it incredibly clear that certain material perhaps shouldn’t be remade. History is history. It’s impossible to go backwards in time and make something acceptable. However, how contemporary culture is analyzed is within our power. Movies have a real power to influence, and filmmakers need to be aware of this.
Hollywood has the power to dictate its own path. With the conversation about the lack of underrepresented characters and voices on screen and the importance of representation continuing to dominate popular culture, why waste an important female led vehicle as a relatively mediocre rehash of a twice remade comedy? It is ultimately this which serves as The Hustle’s downfall. Not every film needs to be a gender swapped spin on an already established property. It has been said before, but it continues to be a relevant topic of conversation: women, individuals of color and members of the queer community have their own stories. Why do we need to keep telling the same ones?
The Hustle opens today in theaters around the country.