Hathaway and Wilson are terrific, but ‘The Hustle’ runs out of good ideas
Directed by: Chris Addison
Written by: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer
Starring: Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson
“The Hustle” – “There’s nothing more compelling to a man than a vulnerable woman.” - Josephine Chesterfield (Anne Hathaway)
Josephine Chesterfield and Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) proudly live by the aforementioned edict. You see, they habitually call upon their damsel in distress powers to lure men. Not for romance or companionship, but for cash. They are con artists.
Josephine frequents high-end casinos, wraps herself in designer garments that would be the eternal envy of every runway model at New York Fashion Week and targets various wealthy gentlemen to glean small fortunes through the art of unscrupulous, manipulative conversation.
Structurally, Penny employs the same fraudulent techniques with her marks, but her current universe is dramatically more low-brow. She meets men at local watering holes and convinces them to fork over a few hundred dollars towards her sister’s breast augmentation surgery. Yes, this works, believe it or not!
These professional birds of a feather - from opposite sides of the couth-scale – connect on a train traveling through the South of France and eventually join larceny-forces to pilfer the daylights out of random, affluent blokes.
In director Chris Addison’s first feature film “The Hustle”, he leans on the comic gifts of Wilson and Hathaway to carry the colloquial and physical scenes, as Penny and Josephine dig deep into their bag of tricks. Wilson delivers her usual, expected performance of a droll misfit with a special panache for dishing out heaping mounds of backhanded compliments and self-deprecation. It comes as no surprise that Wilson hilariously stumbles and bumbles in Josephine’s crash course-boot camp of femme fatalism, when Penny discovers the daunting and thorny worlds of pommel horse jumping and knife throwing.
Hathaway, on the other hand, offers the biggest revelation as Josephine. It’s easy to categorize Hathaway as just another glamorous actress who fits into various cookie-cutter films that regularly reside at your local cineplex and just look to “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), “Bride Wars” (2009), “One Day” (2011), and “Les Misérables” (2012) as prime examples. That, however, would be a mistake. This terrific actress regularly takes chances with projects that showcase her ingenuity and imagination. Whether she’s a mentally-anguished sister coping with guilt in “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), a young woman afflicted with Parkinson’s in “Love & Other Drugs” (2010) or a screw-up who inadvertently channels a Godzilla-like alter-ego in “Colossal” (2016), Hathaway will let her hair down, roll up her sleeves and dive into just about any role.
Include slapstick comedy as another winning color in her acting-palette, because Hathaway’s Josephine perfectly matches – through sarcastic, snooty riffs and polished, worldly talents – with clumsy, street-smart Penny.
These actresses share marvelous chemistry, and they seem to be having a blast throughout the 94-minute film, even though we may not. Don’t blame Hathaway and Wilson. The script falters in the second half, once the two swindlers stop working together and decide to compete against one another, once a new mark (Alex Sharp) enters their sights. The bouncy camp turns to forced gimmicks, and Sharp’s uninspired, flat presence sucks the oxygen out of the theatre. Sure, Thomas (Sharp) is supposed to be a milk-toast kid, but either Sharp perfectly nails the dull role, or he is simply displaying his natural, narrow range. It’s difficult to tell or analyze, when repeatedly looking at one’s watch after 60 seconds of Thomas filling time and speaking blather.
Unfortunately, writers Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer also leave a lengthy, hanging thread after Penny meets “Nazi Gollum” on a plane and step into a gigantic plot hole when Josephine pretends to be a doctor. Also, Josephine’s police-assistant disappears in the third act for some reason.
The film frankly works best when the ladies are allies, which is temporary. In fact, in a series of hysterical sequences as partners, Penny plays a character named Hortense the Princess, while Josephine pretends to be oblivious to her insane royal antics. These moments feel an awful lot like Steve Martin’s turn as Ruprecht in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), but this actually makes perfect sense. Shapiro, Henning and Launer wrote that script too. Well, as a female-led remake or a unique stand-alone picture, Hathaway and Wilson met the challenge, but perhaps the writers will recruit Adam McKay to help with a sequel. These fierce, compelling women deserve a better story.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.