Dir: Chris Addison. Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Tim Blake Nelson, Alex Sharp, Meena Rayann, Ingrid Oliver. 12A cert, 94 mins
This dirty rotten mess of a film stars Rebel Wilson (who also produced it) and Anne Hathaway as con artists preying on rich and lecherous men in the south of France. The former, Lonnie, is a small time hustler who tricks her targets into giving her money for cosmetic surgery (fake boob jobs) or for saving her (non-existent) sister from sexual slavery. She wears black vinyl dresses so that when she is escaping from her enemies, she can blend in comfortably with any nearby trash bags. The latter, Josephine, is much more upmarket: a high class swindler who speaks in a very haughty English accent. She is based on the French Riviera, pulling her scams in the casinos and five-star hotels and living in great luxury in a sea-front villa. The women detest one another.
Whenever he talked about why he made Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (on which The Hustle is based), Michael Caine used to rhapsodise that it had the best locations of any film he had ever made – Cap Ferrat and the Cap D’Antibes among them. One guesses the opportunity to base herself in such balmy locations must have appealed to Hathaway, an Oscar-winning performer, who generally chooses her projects more carefully.
The Hustle tries to parade its feminist credentials. The screenplay refers again and again to the crudity, sexism, duplicity and general venality of the small-minded men duped by Josephine and Lonnie. These men have it coming and there is schadenfreude in seeing them make such fools of themselves. The film soon develops into an odd couple comedy. Hathaway’s sophistication is pitted against Wilson’s more earthy qualities. However, the two women are so busy plotting against each other that they risk forgetting the common enemy – namely masculinity at its most wretched and toxic.
The timing here always seems slightly off. The slapstick sequences – Wilson’s bull in a china shop antics, throwing knives backward, careering into a pommel horse, being dragged behind Hathaway’s bicycle or shooting peasants instead of pheasants – are never quite slick enough. The verbal interplay isn’t as witty as you might hope either. Smutty jokes about STDs, lesbian cops, drunken Essex girls and chastity belts don’t help.
In his directorial debut, British comedian Chris Addison struggles to give The Hustle pace and dramatic tension. The jaunty music soon begins to grate. The storytelling has a strangely random quality. Wilson’s character has come to Beaumont-sur-Mer partly to learn from Hathaway (“teach me your sugar baby ways”) and partly because she wants to usurp her. She suspects that this highly sophisticated criminal might in fact be the legendary “Medusa”, the enigmatic con artist to whom she most looks up.
The main scam here involves the two women competing to fleece a nerdy young Silicon Valley tech millionaire (Alex Sharp). To ingratiate herself, Wilson’s character pretends to be blind. This gives her the excuse to blunder around in an even more anarchic way than before. Hathaway, meanwhile, tries to win the bet by passing herself off to the millionaire as a European psychotherapist with a strange Rosa Klebb-like accent.
In the best films about confidence tricksters, for example David Mamet’s House of Games, the audience is as hoodwinked by the scams as their intended victims. There is a perverse and masochistic pleasure in being deceived. Here, the schemes are all too easy to see through and even the final-reel twist can be spotted a long way in advance. The Hustle does yield a few chuckles. Hathaway has some effective comic moments on the dance floor and gets to display a Meryl Streep-like facility for putting on accents. Wilson’s brassy charm occasionally shines through. One underlying problem is that it’s hard to maintain interest in or sympathy for two such cynical and superficial characters. On the brighter side, the sun shines throughout and the Riviera settings look just as enticing as they did when Caine and Steve Martin were up to mischief in the original Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
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