Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson play it for laughs, and larceny, in ‘The Hustle’
You know what’s missing from “The Hustle”? Ruprecht.
The new Anne Hathaway-Rebel Wilson con-artist comedy is a beat-for-beat gender-switched remake of “Bedtime Story” (1964) as well as of that film’s remake, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988). The first version starred David Niven and Marlon Brando and hasn’t held up very well; the second starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin and has.
More to the point, both earlier movies peak with a sublimely funny scene in which the older conman, posing as a bankrupt European prince, introduces his new, rich American fiancée to his “younger brother Ruprecht,” who lives in a dungeon and behaves like an overgrown toddler with nasty table manners. Brando wasn’t known for comedy and Martin was; that the sequence can reduce an audience to helpless laughter in both cases is a sign that it is foolproof.
Or was. In “The Hustle,” Hathaway’s chic Brit Josephine reluctantly teams up with Wilson’s crass Australian blunderbuss Penny to run a similar scam, with the latter pretending to be a sort of demented fairy princess named Hortense. The scene is bumptiously silly and it gets some undemanding laughs, but it never lifts off into the comic ether — you don’t get high off the giggles.
So it is with the rest of “The Hustle,” a watchable, unnecessary re-do that works hard but lacks the charm to really zing. The settings in the South of France still make for a pleasant armchair vacation, and costume designer Emma Fryer drapes Hathaway in a succession of soignee outfits; screenwriter Jac Schaeffer has retained as much of the earlier films’ banter as she can while interweaving some sharp new asides about the benefits and necessities of being a lady grifter (“Because no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is”). The movie putters along on acceptably comic tracks, most of the jokes rising from the contrast between Josephine’s uptight cool and Penny’s aggressive vulgarity. You’ve seen worse. You’ve also seen plenty better.
The film was shot in late 2017 and shows signs of being tinkered to death: actor Tim Blake Nelson is listed in the cast on IMDb but is nowhere to be seen in the movie. Director Chris Addison has shown a gift for smart farce and diamond-hard wit in his work on TV’s “Veep,” but “The Hustle” seems to have been edited to emphasize Wilson’s improvised physical comedy instead of the cleverness of the situations and dialogue. The actress is both refreshing — a plus-size comedian willing to do anything for a laugh while pushing the envelope of body-positive comic bad taste — and lacking in the precision timing needed for this sort of vehicle.
Also lacking: the perfect sucker. “The Hustle” sets up a rivalry between the Mutt-and-Jeff leads and ultimately has them try to outfleece each other while fleecing a naive young tech billionaire (Alex Sharp, looking uncannily like Mark Zuckerberg). This allows Wilson’s Penny to play a blind woman — cue the pratfalls — and Hathaway’s Josephine to affect a growling Teutonic accent (more convincing than the British accent that’s supposedly the character’s real one) while fighting over a character who’s a dull nonentity.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” by contrast, had the good fortune to showcase the late, lamented Glenne Headly, who stole the movie in more ways than one. She was a delightful bauble in a movie that still shines brightly, while “The Hustle,” for all its gloss, is zirconium. It may beguile the casual observer, but look closer and you’ll know you’ve been had.
Directed by Chris Addison. Written by Jac Schaeffer, based on screenplays by Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, and Dale Launer. Starring Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 93 minutes. PG-13 (crude sexual content and language).