An unashamed farce, this female-led update of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels makes the most of Rebel Wilson's crass persona.
Image: Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson play competing con artists on the Riviera in The Hustle. Source: UIP.
Rebel Wilson is good at what she does, and what she does is pretty much the same in every movie she appears in. This was fine in the wake of Bridesmaids, when America woke up from a twenty-year bro coma and realised that hey, women can be funny in a crude, obvious way too. But while in recent years her contemporaries have broadened their range (Melissa McCarthy has gone from shitting in sinks to Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and a new generation have shifted female-led comedy towards a more ensemble approach, Wilson’s aggressively abrasive antics have looked increasingly tired, dated, and out of touch. The Hustle suggests a possible way forward: if Wilson can’t change, change everything around her.
Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is a high-class con artist working the casinos of a small town on the French Rivera and doing very well from it indeed, thank you very much. Lonnie (Rebel Wilson) is also a con artist… and that’s pretty much where the similarities end; early in the film she escapes from the cops by disguising herself as a bag of trash. When Lonnie arrives on Josephine’s turf, it rapidly becomes clear that the small town isn’t big enough for the two of them. The solution? A competition where the winner is the first to con a tech billionaire (Alex Sharp) out of half a million dollars.
To get the big surprise out of the way first: this is a solidly entertaining – if extremely lightweight – film, and a large part of the credit goes to Rebel Wilson. More specifically, to whoever it was who had the idea of remaking Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and giving Wilson the role of the annoying, crass, and only marginally competent con artist, because it’s a role she suits down to the ground.
Hathaway is fun as the stuffy one of the pair, and she does get to be increasingly silly as the story goes on, but the straight man role never quite suits her the way Wilson’s does. Hathaway's (relative) restraint works for the good of the film though. Simply by making it clear that it’s okay to be annoyed by Wilson, Hathaway makes Wilson’s usual crude hijinks a lot more amusing. Nearly all of Wilson’s previous films have assumed the audience was firmly on her side; it turns out she’s a whole lot funnier when it’s obvious that everyone around her just wants her gone.
It doesn’t hurt that this is also an unashamed farce of a kind we rarely see in English-language cinema. Today’s comedy increasingly relies on individual stand-alone scenes to work, whereas farce needs a consistent (and consistently over-the-top) tone that the comedy springs from. So it’s a pleasant surprise here that first-time movie director Chris Addison (best known for playing Oliver Reeder on The Thick of It) does a solid job of maintaining the film’s farcical tone without letting it spiral out of control. The laughs here come from watching entertaining characters doing silly things as they wage war on each other, rather than comedy set-pieces that could work almost as well as YouTube clips. While it’s not exactly ground-breaking it certainly feels fresh in the current comedy climate.
At barely 90 minutes long (there’s even a deleted scene in the credits) The Hustle doesn’t overstay its welcome. That’s a big plus: it presents audiences with a couple of over-the-top characters, lets them banter a little, pits them against each other, and then wraps things up before the twists run out and the jokes get stale. But there’s virtue in knowing your limitations. At a time when bigger is automatically assumed to mean better at the cinema, these con artists hope that going small is the path to a big payoff.
Director: Chris Addison
USA, 2019, 1hr 34min
Release Date: 9 May 2019