“The Hustle” is a rivals-in-crime feminista scam comedy set on the French Riviera, with Anne Hathaway as a drop-dead-elegant British seductress-grifter who fleeces wealthy suckers the way they deserve to be fleeced, and Rebel Wilson as a disheveled vulgarian who’s just as shrewd an operator (she works the same trickery on a more low-rent breed of men). The movie is a remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), which was a remake of “Bedtime Story” (1964). And this trio of light-fingered films, each made decades apart, adds up to a peculiar footnote in the history of Hollywood con-artist deviltry.
Each film comes with a movie-star pairing that sounds, on paper, like wild-meets-debonair perfection: Marlon Brando and David Niven in “Bedtime Story,” Steve Martin and Michael Caine in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and now Wilson and Hathaway in “The Hustle.” Each film is a stylized confection of drawing-room class tension, airy sight gags, and underworld games staged with clockwork precision. Yet it’s a funny thing: As entertainments, all three versions, including this latest one, are merely okay. You can’t put your finger on anything that goes terribly wrong, yet the effect, in each case, is more innocuously diverting than exhilarating. Maybe that’s because the genre is crime but the tone is farce.
“The Hustle” starts off as the liveliest of the three, and it has its share of winning scenes. Hathaway and Wilson, who spend most of the movie trying to outfox each other, inject their roles with outsize personality. Yet “The Hustle,” fun as some of it is, is a tall fizzy drink in which the fizz never completely rises to the top of the glass.
Hathaway, acting with a ruthlessness as crisp and perky as her British enunciation, comes on like Julie Andrews playing a Bond villain. In “The Hustle,” though, she’s also an ace chameleon who impersonates, at various points, a dishy dim-bulb American lottery winner, a tearful royal who has lost everything, a Cockney scamp, and a German physician as severe as a dominatrix.
Playing this honey-trap manipulator who men can’t resist, Hathaway clearly relishes the opportunity to strut her misanthropic stuff, and she’s very good at it. She maneuvers each scene with icy comic control, whereas Rebel Wilson, with her discombobulated hostility, plays Penny as a desperado in a china shop. Wilson, making the most of a script that has some tart lines (she calls a rasping European on an airplane “Nazi Gollum”), has a rare gift for making everything she says sound spontaneous, as if she were constantly adjusting herself to the surroundings that make her feel out of whack. “Take this to the guest room, butlery person,” she blurts out to the person she thinks is the butler (and, in fact, is).
“The Hustle” opens with Penny (Wilson), dressed in shiny black leather (which will allow her to double, at a key moment, as a garbage bag), meeting a dude she’d connected to on a dating app — except that he thought he was going to be meeting the porno doll of his dreams. At a New York bar, his slack-jawed disappointment at seeing Penny, who looks nothing like the buxom sexpot in her site-ad photo, gets flipped on its head when she explains that the woman is her sister, who needs $500 for a boob job before she can meet him. At that point, he’s so hooked on his hook-up fantasy that he’s more than willing to give her the cash.
Cut to a casino in Beaumont-sur-Mer, a village along the Riviera where Josephine (Hathaway), in a dress that has more silver sequins than all of Oscar night, pretends to be a wide-eyed and wealthy American bubblehead who cons a Eurotrash gambler into believing that he’s met the very jackpot of gullibility. This allows her to gain possession of his wife’s bejeweled bracelet, the pièce de résistance of the con being Josephine’s sudden arrest and exposure as a con artist — by a tough cop (Ashley McGuire) who’s actually in on the scam. It’s a terrific scene (for a few seconds, your head spins a bit), and the only downside is that it raises the bar on what’s coming next.
Josephine has already observed Penny in action during a train trip. And that’s enough to tip her off that she doesn’t want this crass interloper treading on her ritzy home turf. She lives in a modernist villa in Beaumont-sur-Mer, and there’s only room for one queen of the con. But confronted with Penny’s stubborn presence, she agrees to team up with her (as the first act of getting rid of her).
“The Hustle” starts off as a vengeful comic fantasy of women using tricks and illusions to exploit the lusty pliability of men. In the movies, the vast majority of con artists have been men (though there are a handful of great female con artists, like the one played by Annette Bening in “The Grifters”), and “The Hustle” is savvy enough to suggest that women, in their everyday lives, have to be 10 times the con artists that men are just to soft-shoe around all the crap that men lay on them. For a while, the prospect of a con-woman movie driven by the motor of sexual politics gives “The Hustle” a lift.
It’s when they’re just getting to know each other that Josephine asks Penny, rhetorically, why women are better con artists than men. The reason, says Josephine, is that “no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is.” A decade ago, that might have come off as a glib movie line, but in the #MeToo era we recognize it as a pensée with a sting of truth. Men, says Josephine, are wired to want to be the hero of any situation, and as “The Hustle” implies (without stating it outright), it’s really men’s sexual vanity that makes them eternal marks.
Josephine and Penny join forces for the Lord of the Rings scam, in which Josephine pretends to be a very distant member of the royal family, who cons a series of men, starting with a Texas zillionaire (Dean Norris), into asking for her hand in marriage, at which point, with a rock the size of a marble on her finger, she unveils her “sister,” Hortense, played by Wilson as a hellion who’s like a reject from the Addams Family. The men, at this point, just want to flee, and are willing to leave the rock behind to do so. It’s a funny scam, and we wait for the movie to escalate from there.
But while “The Hustle” maintains a tone of confectionary amorality, instead of building toward its logical climax — the ultimate con pulled on male piggishness — it begins to play like “Ocean’s Two” with a soft-focus target. The grand mark the two women settle on is Thomas, a wealthy tech star who invented a popular app. He’s played by Alex Sharp as a kind of saintly boyish Mark Zuckerberg who’s too good to be true. The women, who at this point are official rivals, work a con that’s also a contest between them: Wilson turns herself into the most innocent of love objects by pretending to be suffering from hysterical blindness, and Hathaway, in bangs and tomato-red lipstick, impersonates “Dr. Schuffhausen,” the stern German super-physician who can cure her.
As all this plays out, the last half of the 94-minute movie becomes simultaneously the pair’s most ambitious scam; a showdown of feminine wiles; a seduction that holds a wispy hint of true romance; and the duo’s comeuppance. With all that in play, it becomes less clear who, and what, we’re rooting for, and the movie starts to lose its cheeky point-of-view and more than a bit of its pulse. It sounds churlish to complain too much about “The Hustle,” because both actresses are winning, and the movie just wants to be a spiked dessert of a crime caper. But these are amoral times, and the reason “The Hustle” may not find much momentum after its opening weekend is that it starts off as a tale of dirty rotten scoundrels but ultimately turns more amiably silly than acidic.