You know a remake is bad when it tempts you to doubt the merits of the original. Redoing the con-artist caper Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) with female leads is a good idea, and casting Anne Hathaway as the snob and Rebel Wilson as the slob sounds like an even better one. Yet somehow The Hustle, directed by Chris Addison ("Veep"), is loud and leaden when it should sparkle like Champagne. Dim-witted rich dudes are plentiful in the movie's French Riviera setting, but laughs are not.
The Hustle follows the plot of the beloved Michael Caine-Steve Martin comedy so closely that only two of its credited screenwriters (Dale Launer and Jac Schaeffer) are still among the living. The other two, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning, penned both Scoundrels and the 1964 film of which it was itself a remake.
In this version, Wilson plays Penny, a trashy-dressing trash talker who specializes in online catfishing. On a jaunt to the Riviera, she runs into Josephine (Hathaway), a refined sort who excels at bilking men with more money than morals. Initially, the two team up, and Josephine tutors Penny in the ways of high society. The alliance is short-lived, though, and soon they're competing for the fortune and affections of a tech millionaire (Alex Sharp) who looks barely out of high school.
The reinterpretation of Glenne Headly's spacey heiress as a socially inept tech bro is one of the remake's more interesting choices. While Martin's and Caine's characters played on women's loneliness, these two play on men's vanity, with Josephine breezily informing Penny that the secret of her success is men's refusal to believe women can outsmart them.
The problem is that most of the cons in The Hustle are played so broadly it's impossible to imagine anyone being outsmarted for a second. Scoundrels had its silly moments, but Caine's straight-man hauteur and Martin's skilled use of deadpan kept things from getting consistently cartoonish. Not so here.
Both leads have proven comedy chops: Wilson carried the recent Isn't It Romantic on the force of her bemused eyebrows alone, while Hathaway's insecure starlet was one of the funniest parts of Ocean's 8. Here, though, they play so much to type they become caricatures. Penny is portrayed as a surly slacker of a scammer — one can only assume she does her best work online — while Josephine swans around with a succession of ever more absurdly fake accents to match her designer outfits. Rarely does either seem halfway competent at her profession.
The whole production shares that manic, more-is-more approach. Like its predecessor, The Hustle has a lengthy con-artist-training montage. But where Caine trained Martin in golfing, suit wearing and wine tasting, Hathaway trains Wilson in knife throwing and other stuff more suited to a spy movie. The tone levels out a bit once Sharp's character enters the picture, but it's too little, too late.
Nothing's inherently wrong with broad slapstick, of course. But a celebration of the art of the con, which involves reading and playing on people's vulnerabilities, demands a subtler touch — and, to put it bluntly, a smarter script. If The Hustle had leaned into its own feminist rhetoric and really shown us how the two leads wormed their way into men's bank accounts via lust and ego, it might have been delicious fun. Instead, Hathaway and Wilson are so busy playing to the audience that they barely even bother with their marks. That's the real con.