Scams are hot right now. From Elizabeth Holmes to Lori Loughlin, women are having a cultural heyday as scammers, grifters and con artists (before they get caught, anyway). So “The Hustle,” a gender-swapped remake of the 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (which is itself a remake of the 1964 Marlon Brando/David Niven film “Bedtime Story”), has an impeccable sense of timing.
Alas, that’s the main thing it has going for it.
It’s not horrible; if you’re jonesing for scam content, fresh out of Theranos podcasts, college admissions scandal depositions or Anna Delvey courtroom fashions, this capricious little caper just might be the fix. Otherwise, don’t bite.
Directed by Chris Addison (his first movie after a career in TV”), Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson pair up as rival con artists with very different styles. The poised and proper Josephine (Hathaway) leans heavily on breathy flirtations and Oscar-worthy crocodile tear production, while the unrefined and bawdy Penny (Wilson) has a knack for crafting elaborate narratives that usually involve human trafficking.
You never know who’s scamming whom. Penny encounters Josephine on the train, where the two mutually recognize a fellow con woman. Penny blackmails her way into a few grifting lessons, while Josephine schemes to scare Penny off her turf. It all comes to a head when they zero in on a shared mark: a hapless young tech inventor (Alex Sharp). A wager ensues.
Set in the French Riviera (in the fictional town of Beaumont-Sur-Mer, cribbed from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), “The Hustle” nods to its prior counterparts and feels at times like “To Catch a Thief” meets “Absolutely Fabulous.” The movie’s saving grace is its stars. Wilson’s particular brand of wordy chaotic energy enlivens the proceedings and brings that unpredictable sense of weird to everything she’s in. And Hathaway — well, she’s peerless when it comes to slinking ostentatiously, all while pouting and spouting some of the most outlandish accent work committed to film. It’s a performance that is all kinds of campy, and it’s nice to see her having fun.
Penny’s lessons are a chance for the two women to elucidate the ethos behind their scammery. Josephine declares that all men want to be heroes, so she goes hard on the damsel-in-distress routine. But the way she’s written, without much back story at all, she seems a little sociopathic in her naked determination to fleece men out of anything she can get. As for Penny, scamming is her way of getting back at men who overlook her romantically. “When he looks at me like that,” indicating disappointment, “that’s when I decide to rob him blind,” she says.
There’s always a troubling wrinkle with gender-swapping classic comedies that don’t take into account the inherent power dynamics at play. While “The Hustle” stays true to the twists and turns of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” one can’t help but feel like the film, which preaches the power of women over the men who might underestimate them, is ultimately a bit of an 11th hour bait-and-switch, message-wise. It’s the irony of all ironies that one walks away from “The Hustle” feeling a little, well, hustled.