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11° & SUNNY ON THURSDAY 27 JUNE IN AUCKLAND
By Sarah Ward
May 13, 2019
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The Hustle

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson can't save this gender-swapped con-artist remake, which just ends up scamming itself.
By Sarah Ward
May 13, 2019
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2016's most controversial movie wasn't afraid of no ghosts, nor of updating a beloved classic with a gender-flipped spin. The backlash to the new Ghostbusters was as loud as it was stupid, however lost in the noise were two crucial facts. Firstly, the film is hilarious, fun and genuinely great. Secondly, it does exactly what a female-led version of a familiar property should. With all the ridiculous focus on why the supernatural comedy wasn't a carbon copy of the 80s flicks, and why women are now allowed to chase the paranormal (correct answer: why the hell not?), the movie didn't get recognition for its most significant feat. It doesn't lazily insert ladies into a thin rehash, but shapes its antics and jokes around them. That really shouldn't be so rare and astonishing, and yet so often it is.

Take The Hustle, for example. It's the latest film to subscribe to the obvious motto that anything men can do, women can too, but it also takes that notion much too literally. Everything that 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did, this movie apes beat for beat, just with Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson instead of Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Scoundrels was a remake itself, updating 1964's Bedtime Story, so the narrative has been around for more than half a century — and yet familiarity isn't the only problem here. For a couple of average pictures about scheming conmen ripping off wealthy women, The Hustle's predecessors actually came packaged with some smart social critique, skewering the battle of the sexes in the process. Alas, as a presumably unintended consequence of pushing girls to the front, the narrative's best and most biting elements have now disappeared, including its savvy female empowerment strand.

Making a couple of supremely confident male grifters reliant upon women to get by, as the first two films did, made a satirical statement. Tasking two female fraudsters with fleecing rich men to punish their misdeeds doesn't have the same impact, unsurprisingly. The Hustle pulls its punches in other ways too, as seen in its terrible final twist (without heading into spoiler territory, let's just say that it's a case of not thinking the whole switcheroo through). Story-wise, Hathaway's Josephine Chesterfield is the swindling queen bee in the cashed-up French beachside town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, while Wilson's fellow scammer Penny Rust is her exact opposite. One robs super rich guys with long cons, the other cheats sleazeballs with quick tricks, and they're soon locked in a turf war. The solution: the first to snare a cool half a million out of their latest mark, baby-faced tech whiz Thomas (Alex Sharp), can keep pulling capers on the Riviera.

Hathaway also starred in last year's big gender-swapped heist flick, Ocean's 8, and the end result is sadly somewhat similar. The Hustle thinks that plonking female stars into the same old scenario is enough; women should just be happy that studios are even bothering, apparently. It's the type of supposed progress that takes two steps forward and then the same amount back, because no one wants to see ladies slavishly retracing men's footsteps. Here, a heap of the film's narrative details also take on an uncomfortable tone, leaning on outdated stereotypes and cliches even in an obvious farce. Women romancing men for their money? Ruthlessly competing for — and measuring their worth based on — male attention? Cattily battling it out? That's not clever or amusing. It's not subversive in its sexual politics either, as much as the movie pretends the latter is true ("no man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is," Josephine offers, explaining her success). Like much about the picture, it's just tired.

With Hathaway's fake posh English accent clashing with Wilson's distinctive Australian drawl, The Hustle's stars are its biggest strength. Of course, they're really just doing what they're already known for doing well. Still, it's easy to see why the film exists, on paper at least, based on their odd-couple pairing. They each do their best with the material — Hathaway perhaps more so than Wilson, who doubles as one of the movie's producers. The duo also benefit from a few snappy one-liners, which are improved by their delivery. But screenwriter Jac Schaeffer (Disney short Olaf's Frozen Adventure) does little else to liven up the photocopied script, which is also credited to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Dale Launer, as well as long-dead Bedtime Story scribes Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning.

British actor-turned-filmmaker Chris Addison keeps everything blandly light, scenic and fluffy, however that's barely all there is to his feature directorial debut. Well, that and an ill-thought-out do-over that does female-fronted remakes zero favours and scams itself more than anything else. You'd never guess that Addison was one of the stars of the savagely hilarious sitcom The Thick of It, or a director on its US counterpart, Veep. In fact, imagining what the acerbic characters of those shows would say about this flick is funnier than every second of The Hustle.

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