They say it’s all in the timing, especially when it comes to funny business. But in The Hustle everyone’s inner comedic clock is calamitously off. The setups are flat, the jokes don’t land and the actors don’t — or won’t — connect. How does this happen in a movie that stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, two proven experts at the art of farce? Oscar winner Hathaway stole the show from her A-list costars in Ocean’s 8. And Wilson, best known as Fat Amy in the Pitch Perfect franchise, is an Aussie slapstick treasure.
And yet The Hustle flutters and sputters and all too quickly goes splat. Shot nearly two years ago and awaiting a release an unsuspecting public should have been spared, this femcentric remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels drops Hathaway and Wilson into the con-artist roles played by Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Years before that, in 1964, David Niven and — wait for it — Marlon Brando played the same parts in Bedtime Story. No one would call either of those films a classic, but they had their moments. This version has only desperation. Any comedian will tell you: Don’t let them see you sweat. This movie damn near drowns in perspiration.
Hathaway plays Josephine Chesterfield, a Brit with an outrageously phony accent (she tries on several) who runs a classy scam act on the French Riviera, bilking men out of their money in ways that seem more complicated than necessary — perhaps to pad a plot that barely wheezes to a finish at 93 minutes? Wilson takes the role of Penny Rust, a low-rent version of Josephine who decides to horn in on her rival’s territory. The two team up to clean out a young, Internet tycoon, played by Alex Sharp, who became the youngest actor to win a Tony award for Best Play as the autistic protagonist of Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Sad to see him reduced to playing stooge in cheap gags that are older than he is.
In his feature directing debut, Welsh comedian Chris Addison labors mightily to pretend he’s still calling the shots on the satiric heaven of HBO’s Veep. He’s not. And the formula script by Jac Schaeffer (she pitched in on Captain Marvel) does him no favors. For every decent one-liner — Penny tells a posh waiter, “I’m salad intolerant” — dozens more slide into the black hole of deserved oblivion. And so it goes. Everyone in The Hustle has seen better days, and will surely see them again. Right now, though, it’s the audience that gets grifted.