There are many premises that could be intriguing to be spun either with female or male perspectives. However, the recent slew of female remakes from Hollywood seem to be completely lost. There have been attempts at taking all-male ensembles and switch them to female such as with Ghostbusters (2016) or Ocean’s Eight (2018), but both those films failed to grasp that simply switching genders for their main characters, wasn’t going to freshen up their lack of originality; unfortunately this also seems to be the case with The Hustle (2019).
The Hustle is a remake of the Steve Martin and Michael Caine starrer Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), which itself was a remake of the Marlon Brando and David Niven film Bedtime Story (1964). This new iteration follows the ’88 film nearly identically, scene by scene, with the slight altercation of gender switch and time period (both were contemporary for their times). We are introduced to two con artists: Penny (Rebel Wilson), a scrappy Australian, and Josephine (Anne Hathaway) a higher-classed thief specializing in tricking the elite. When Penny steps into Josephine’s “hunting-ground” on the French Riviera, they both begin to compete to see who can extract $500,000 from the innocent-looking tech-wiz Thomas (Alex Sharp).
As mentioned before, the film borrows heavily from the 1988 remake, to the point that nearly all the jokes are recycled. There are small tweaks and changes, trying to modernize the film to audiences of today, but I found this film to actually be a step back in terms of the progressiveness and feminism that the film might have wanted to promote. The previous iterations (decades-old spoiler alert) had the object of competition be the actual con artist that was playing both main characters. In the 1988 film, this certainly made for a surprising twist whereas the whole audience had bought into the idea of women being clueless and giving their money away. The idea that a woman had actually outsmarted both thieves, was the perfect slap in the face for the characters and for viewers that had bought into the character; in many ways it was an underlying feminist message showing the power and control that was actually being wielded by a woman. The idea there had been that women used the perception that they were weak and stupid to their advantage. However, in this film that idea is only mentioned briefly in Josephine’s opening scene; and then the rest of the film is treated as if they were both men. With the gender roles switched, Thomas is the one who ends up outsmarting the women, making the idea that females are clueless and can’t figure out what’s going on a cemented part of this iteration. This indicates, not only that the filmmakers were all men, but that studios don’t understand that the gender-switches don’t always lead to a more progressive film; a bit of effort into changing the story and the script up a bit is needed.
But apart from the ethical problems with the film, there were many others in terms of its enjoyment and quality. A lack of originality was only the start of its flaws. Perhaps because the new script lacked anything new, the actresses seemed to have been very encouraged to improvise. This leads to interminably long scenes where unfunny concepts are dragged out, and viewers are forced to sit through frequent pauses as Wilson and Hathaway’s brains work fast enough to conceive of new jokes. It’s hard to blame the actresses too much, they seem to have been abandoned by any sense of direction. Hathaway, who is the more experienced actress of the two, seemed so confused as to whether act in a reserved manner, believing her character, or to make her Josephine a caricature and exaggeration.
As I said before in my Oceans Eight review, women do need more diverse opportunities on-screen, but they need original and good ideas to be paired with them. Studios are still too afraid to showcase an original idea with either a woman or a minority cast (see many of the “black remakes” Little (2019), What Men Want (2019)). Until this silly spin on remakes ends, there won’t be proper “breakthrough” opportunities that will indicate progress in Hollywood. The Hustle is an unoriginal interpretation with an incredible lack of leadership and direction. There are a few moments to chuckle, but they are mostly thanks to the vain efforts of the leads, and to the premises of the infinitely more hilarious previous films.