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Why The Hustle has no sting

A gender-swapping redo of a con-man comedy doesn't make good on its promise.

In 1988, Michael Caine and Steve Martin plundered the sunny shores of the French Riviera in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As a petty small-time Yankee con man, Martin played the foil to Caine’s wry shark, an English gent in unruffled linen.

They swindled holidaying ladies out of their jewels, but got their comeuppance at the hands of a superior woman. It was based on the 1964 David Niven-Marlon Brando film Bedtime Story.

Now comes The Hustle, directed by British comedian Chris Addison, a remake of that film and an attempt to turn the tables. Anne Hathaway plays the sleek and stunningly-outfitted Josephine opposite Rebel Wilson’s backpacking Australian trickster, Penny. This time, it’s the men who are the marks.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

For the first act at least, The Hustle is a whipcrack contest of wits and savvy, in which the punchlines have a genuine payoff. It’s much smarter and funnier than the ’88 version. Hathaway is a miracle of demureness, and her character leaves Danish gamblers and Texan oil tycoons wilting. Wilson, meanwhile, dials up her signature crassness. The result is (somehow) hilarious rather than exhausting.

To settle their petty sparring, the pair agree to a bet: whoever can coax a cool half-million from a baby-faced tech entrepreneur (Alex Sharp) wins. The loser must leave the Riviera. At this point, despite a few snappy jokes, the film starts to sag, losing the energy that kicked it off.

Then there’s the gender-swap problem. The point of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was to send up its male leads for their arrogance and lechery – that was the crux of the satire. The Hustle, however, has copied the plot, twist included. Which means the righteous female vengeance motivation established at the start must be undercut.

Indeed, it’s Wilson who gets an unexpectedly pointed monologue about male condescension and ridicule. But by the time it’s delivered, The Hustle has already squandered its promise. If it had kept the brio and characters, but swapped out the story, it would have been much more potent.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

Video: Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.