Hustle, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/10/19 06:22:02
Once upon a time—1964 to be exact—there emerged a film by the name of “Bedroom Story,” a comedy starring David Niven and Marlon Brando as a couple of con artists in the French Riviera—one suave and decidedly posh in his targets and the other cruder and more low-rent (take a wild guess as to who played who)—competing against each other to swindle an American heiress (Shirley Jones) to prove which of them was the best at their rarefied position. To be frank, it was not especially amusing—the humor too often leaned heavier on crudity than sophistication—and the only thing keeping it from falling into complete obscurity is the decidedly bizarre spectacle of Marlon Brando—one of the greatest actors of all time but one not exactly famous, especially at that time, for his light comedic touch—trying and largely failing to prove himself as a farceur. Nearly a quarter-century later, “Bedtime Story” was dusted off and remade as the 1988 comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Michael Caine in the David Niven part and Steve Martin following in Brando’s footsteps. Although the screenplay was virtually identical to the extremely uneven original, the resulting film proved to be better than it had any right to be thanks to the slick staging of the material by director Frank Oz and the expert byplay between Caine, Martin and the late Glenne Headly as their winsome target. Now, thirty years after that, the same plot, plus a gender flip for the main characters, has been revived for the screen for a third time with “The Hustle” and after watching this iteration, students of the various versions will find themselves longing for the comparative dignity of the original “Bedroom Story.” Although the notion of doing a female-centric take on this material sounds like a promising idea in theory, it turns out that other than the change in pronouns, most everything else has remained basically the same and the whole thing winds up having all the wit, energy and fizz of a not-incredibly-funny joke being told for a third time.This time around, Lonnie (Rebel Wilson) is a brash American bunco artist who scams dopey guys out of hundreds of bucks at a time with a grift involving bogus breast enhancement surgery for a hot but unseen friend of hers. After the cops begin to close in, she decides to set off for Europe to ply her trade there. While taking the train over, she makes the acquaintance of the sophisticated Josephine (Anne Hathaway) and confesses to her seat mate that she is, in fact, a con woman who is heading up to an area of the French Riviera that is teeming with an endless supply of potential marks. What Lonnie does not realize—though we in the audience already know—is that Josephine is herself a master con artists who has pulled in millions of dollars from suckers over the years and has no plans to cede a potential cent to this crude newcomer. When Lonnie finally figures out who Josephine really is, she turns up on her lavishly appointed doorstep and demands to be taught the tricks of the trade so that she can move into the big time at last.
Deciding that it would be better for the time being to have Lonnie working with her instead of against her, Josephine takes the interloper under her wing and after a slapstick training montage, employs her in an elaborate scam in which she will play a beautiful-but-broke member of the royal family and Lonnie is her deranged but inseparable sister. This works for a while but when Josephine refuses to pay Lonnie a cut for her efforts—apparently even the world of grifting embraces the concept of unpaid interns—Lonnie insists that she is now just as good of a con artist. To settle things, they make a bet—the first one to scam $500,000 out of an unsuspecting goof gets the money while the other is forced to leave the area for good. For a mark, they agree on Thomas (Alex Sharp), an impossibly naive and good-hearted young man who struck it rich by designing an app, and launch a series of elaborate deceptions designed to score the money and claim victory.
On the surface, the notion of a take on the “Bedtime Story”/“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” template that switches up the gender dynamics and recalibrates the material for the #MeToo era sounds relatively promising. Who knows, maybe if the film itself had actually gone along that path, it might have actually worked but it appears that somewhere between the initial idea and its ultimate execution, the people behind “The Hustle” lost their nerve. Instead of a fresh take, this version, aside from a couple moments of lip service to current sexual politics, is content to merely once again rehash the same old stuff that we have seen before. In this case, the rehashing is so overt that the people who wrote the screenplays for the previous versions are credited with co-writing this script along with Jac Schaeffer. (This especially wreaks havoc with the twist ending, which has not been changed at all from the previous versions other than in the gender dynamics and ends up subverting the entire female-friendly approach in the process.) Based on the available evidence, Schaffer’s chief contribution seems to have been in coarsening material that wasn’t exactly subtle to begin with, mostly in regards with making the wannabe grifter brasher, broader and cruder than before, presumably to fit better with Rebel Wilson’s typical screen persona. Mission accomplished except the problem is that this particular take makes precious little sense in a story that is already not exactly teeming with plausibility. In the previous versions, the Brando/Martin characters were certainly less sophisticated than their Niven/Caine counterparts but you could still sort of see them making a go of their small-scale cons before trying to step up their game. By comparison, Lonnie is so calculatedly outrageous right from the get-go that a.) it becomes impossible to believe that even the dumbest and most deluded could possibly fall for her scams and b.) it leaves her with nowhere to go later on when she is supposed to be more over-the-top, such as when she is pretending to be the nutso sister or a woman suffering from hysterical blindness.
At least the earlier versions had the byplay between their stars to fall back on when the material came up short but even there, “The Hustle” winds up stumbling. Anne Hathaway, as observers have no doubt determined over the years, does have a genuine gift for sophisticated comedy and a cheerful willingness to come across as foolish when need be. Here, she is clearly making the effort to find the right level of frothy silliness to match the material and there are moments, especially in the latter stages when she finds herself impersonating a supremely stern German doctor, where the film almost begins to come to life. Unfortunately, she is hobbled by two insurmountable obstacles—a screenplay that simply is not very funny and a co-star that she is never able to develop a convincing comedic rhythm with at any point. Wilson is essentially playing the exact same character that she has in most of her previous films and her approach—brash, loud and teeming with improvs that wind up going nowhere—clashes violently with her costar, who is too often left standing around and waiting to get in a word edgewise amidst the riffing and scatting. Neither one of them is able to make much of anything happen with Sharp, whose character is such a non-entity that you keep thinking that he is a diversion and that the real mark is just caught in traffic and running late.“The Hustle” is a bad movie but more than that, it is an unnecessary one. The previous versions were not exactly comedy classics by any stretch of the imagination but at least they contained some genuinely amusing moments here and there. This one just sits there and tells the same jokes over and over while succeeding at nothing other than figuring out a way of making 94 minutes feels absolutely endless. Compared to a film like last year’s underrated “Ocean’s 8,” which provided a female spin on a typically male-dominated heist narrative and featured Anne Hathaway goofing it up in the process, it just feels dumb and dated and vaguely insulting to both its stars and its presumed target audience.
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