The Hustle and all the images you see in this review are owned by United Artists Releasing and MGM
Directed by Chris Addison
Whether or not it’s a particularly successful tactic (particularly when the audience for blockbusters is only growing larger and larger), counter programming is still a thing in the industry and I’d wager that it’s the main reason this movie is being sandwiched between so many big named blockbusters. I certainly thought the trailers for this looked quite good and I like the casting quite a bit, but being put in theaters now when Avengers and Detective Pikachu are still tearing it up at the box office is either a sign of great insight for the studios to fill a gap in the viewing audience or total hubris that will spell doom for what seems to be a fun little crime film. Is this film a big time hustler elbowing its way to the forefront against such big titans of the cinema, or is this a small time crook that’s way in over its head? Let’s find out!!
Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) is a con artist working in the city running scams on dating sites which are actually quite effective, but end up garnering a significant amount of heat on her and so she’s forced to take her game elsewhere. Said elsewhere turns out to be the stomping grounds of another con artist Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway) who’s set up her base of operations in a ritzy French tourist trap which is never short of gullible dudes just itching to be separated from their valuables, but a wild card like Penny could throw a wrench her in perfectly laid out plans if left to her own devices. Initially she tries to fool her into leaving of her own accord, but by her own wits and a bit of luck, Penny becomes wise to Josephine’s game and wants in on the action; a proposition Josephine is initially resistant towards but figures that keeping Penny happy and useful is better than risking her going to the authorities with what she now knows. At first it seems to be going just fine as Penny trains in the arts of manipulation with the help of Josephine’s assistants Brigitte and Alfred (Ingrid Oliver and Nicholas Woodeson), and they even pull of this brilliant little scheme that’s never really come together until Penny entered the picture, but all is not sunshine and roses in the world of professional scamming, and so the student must eventually face the master in a game of wits, ingenuity, and even a bit of outright cruelty, to prove once and for all if Penny’s brash resourcefulness is truly a match for Josephine’s refined expertise. Will Penny and Josephine’s ultimate challenge bring out the best in both of them, or will they lose everything to their overblown egos? Can they ever come to a mutual understanding given how different their backgrounds are and how cutthroat their line of work is? Is it just me, or is one of them at a distinct advantage considering they’ve already played a diamond thief in a previous movie, and that’s ASIDE from them already having played Catwoman!
The movie is fine for the most part, which isn’t quite the ringing endorsement that’ll land me on the cover of a DVD box, but there’s just going on here to feel too strongly about the overall package despite its ambitions. It definitely has moments in it that allow it to rise above the usual and nebulously termed Romantic Comedy fare, but ultimately what cements this movie’s place as little more than fluff is that despite having so much potential in its premise and talent both in front of and behind the camera, it never takes that extra step to greatness that it seems more than capable of taking. A lot of it has to do with the third act which feels like they’re TRYING to make a spoof of clichéd Romantic Comedy tropes with its ludicrous set up, but it doesn’t have much bite to it and ends up feeling like just another one to throw on the pile instead of the more interesting crime story it could have been in the vein of Ocean’s 8 or even A Simple Favor. I mean I’ve certainly seen worse this year, but I was certainly hoping that it would be much better.
At least the movie starts off strong as right off the bat it stakes a rather bold claim in fulfilling the promise of its tagline; giving dirty rotten men a run for their money. Now I haven’t seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which this appears to be more or less a remake of if the Wikipedia article is any indication (especially the third act), but I’m guessing that this film differs and takes advantage of its change in casting is that it has no problem painting men in a really nasty light; something that feels at least somewhat refreshing in a movie that’s getting such a wide release and aiming for such a broad audience. They aren’t dopey or childish which is the default for guys in comedies like this; they’re straight up misogynistic, xenophobic, and egotistical jerks that make perfect marks for these two women to take advantage of and, to a certain extent at least, justify the actions they take against them. No, not all men are scum and pulling scams like this isn’t morally righteous, but it’s still kind of refreshing to see guys in this movie whose awfulness isn’t undercut by sympathetic framing (a la The Man Child) or being portrayed as some form of a male power fantasy as some sort of compensation or explanation for their lousy behavior. The scams themselves are also fun to watch play out like any good movie about sleight of hand, and the first one with Rebel Wilson in particular is so well executed (within the context of this exaggerated world full of gullible and hateful men) that it got me hooked on this narrative right off the bat!
So we’ve got a solid set up with a world that justifies its protagonists’ existence and a series of rather clever schemes to build them up and set the proper tone for the rest of the movie. It’s a very effective setup, but once these two come the movie must then rely on their chemistry to sell the remainder of the movie, so do Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson work well together? For the most part I’d say so. The entire second act is more or less a two person show between them and I think that they get a lot of mileage out of it, but it still feels a bit restrictive. It was like they got a hold of this gorgeous mansion to use as a set and they didn’t want to waste a second of it, so the majority of their time is spent inside this house either training Rebel Wilson to be a pro con artist and pulling this one scam over and over again. The scenes are funny and the scam is a brilliantly executed one (perhaps the best running gag in the whole movie), but I can’t help feeling that they could have done more here; that a better and more in depth movie was just around the corner waiting for them to really take advantage of their growing friendship and rivalry. For a movie about scams and taking people’s money, there’s a serious lack of grit to it as everything is clean and expensive, and perhaps my perception of such things are shaped by male centered version of this story (*cough* Matchstick Men *cough*), but even something like Ocean’s Eight managed to have a bit more gravitas and danger to it while this one feels too polished. Judging this purely on what actually made it on the screen, it’s quite hilarious and I think Rebel Wilson handles the improve moments like a champ, but a more ambitious vision for this setup could have made this movie BRILLIANT which feels like a wasted opportunity.
Where things start to REALLY go downhill though is the third act which is when they go through their ridiculous wager and succumb to the clichés they had avoided up to that point. Honestly you wouldn’t even know this WAS a romantic comedy based solely on the trailers, and I find the label somewhat disingenuous even with the third act going all in on the setup which is diametrically opposed to the film’s stated goals at the beginning. I get that they are trying to spoof these tropes similar to the way that Tucker and Dale vs Evil did with the framing of horror movies or The Big Lebowski’s remixing of the noir genre, but this film never manages to feel substantive enough to separate itself from the films it wants to be the edgier version of. There’s no edge or bite to any of this which is a shame because Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson continue to get big laughs throughout (though it’s questionable to say the least that Rebel Wilson’s ploy is to pretend to be blind) but it’s yet another example of the movie not being able to live up to what it could have been; albeit the disparity is much more aggressive here than in the second act.
It’s a shame that I became more and more nonplussed about this movie as it went along considering it started on such a strong note, but the smart setup, clever moments, and strong acting from our two leads were just not able to overcome the deficiencies in the script; especially towards the end. Frankly I’m not feeling too much about this movie one way or the other which is certainly a notch about outright hating it (I don’t subscribe to the theory that having a strong negative reaction to something is better than no reaction at all) but I’m gonna forget about this one sooner rather than later. I don’t recommend seeing this in theaters when there are so many better things out right now. Even John Wick 3 which I wasn’t too impressed with is gonna be a more worthwhile cinematic experience than this, which can easily wait for a home release even if you’re really are a big fan of the actors involved. Perhaps the hustle was to lull us all into a sense of bored apathy long enough for someone to enter the theater and nick our popcorn! DARN YOU, PABLUM!!