By Preston Wilder
You’re Dale Launer, a 67-year-old screenwriter. You were big in the 80s, writing smash-hit farces like Ruthless People, My Cousin Vinny and – yes – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Your career seems to have tapered off in the years since – but you’re still around, you’re paying attention, and you know gender-flipped remakes are the latest thing. Scoundrels, made in 1988, was already a remake (of a 1964 film called Bedside Story), so its premise is clearly adaptable; why not recycle it, only with women playing the two con-artists previously played by Michael Caine and Steve Martin?
Was Mr. Launer actually involved in the script for The Hustle? Hard to say, since his writing credit may just relate to its 1988 predecessor (though he’s also an executive producer, so he must’ve had some input) – yet the film itself makes the question moot, feeling irresistibly, for better and worse, like a comedy written by a 67-year-old man. Never mind the piled-high pop-culture references in stuff like The Lego Movie, never mind all the weed jokes and rambling, improv-style conversations in Seth Rogen comedies; never mind even the gross scatological humour that’s been Hollywood’s go-to comic mode for the past 25 years. There’s one gross joke in The Hustle (a potato chip seasoned with toilet water), and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Instead, here’s a film that has Anne Hathaway talking in a funny-foreigner German accent (“rrrrendering ze trrrreatment kaput!”) which – like the animated opening credits – belongs in a Pink Panther movie. Here’s a film that mines laughs from a trio of weirdly anachronistic Essex girls. Never mind weed jokes; one joke here (did it come verbatim from the older movie?) trades on the correct pronunciation of the Thai beach resort of Phuket, a gag that hasn’t been fresh since about 1990.
Then again, that Phuket gag is fresh now, just because – like the rest of the film – it’s so unlike multiplex comedy circa 2019. The stars help too, Hathaway as the elegant crook (the old Michael Caine role), trilling and pouting and casting pitying looks in the direction of Rebel Wilson as the uncouth usurper in her French Riviera playground. The pair’s odd-couple dynamic is broad, but amusingly verbal. It’s apt that the man they both go after, a klutzy young nerd played by Alex Sharp, has become a tech millionaire by inventing something called YouBurned – an app that allows you to send insults to friends – given the abundance of colourful insults in the movie.
Rebel is “a bull in my china shop” and a “moon-faced troll”, reckons Anne. Anne is “an animatronic cocktease” who “looks like a librarian’s corpse, but less lively,” says Rebel. The script doesn’t rise to any great heights but it tries hard, plugging away at the zany insouciance of any good farce. Rebel and Anne play deranged British royalty, freaking out a dumb Texas oilman. There’s a pun on ‘hysterical blindness’ (“an outmoded term”, claims Wikipedia; the pun’s still quite funny, though), and glimmers of old-fashioned visual wit. One bit – where a mile-high-club sexual tussle results in the door of an airplane toilet shuttling repeatedly between ‘Vacant’ and ‘Occupied’, our only sign of the frantic shenanigans going on behind the door – is a late example of what used to be known 90 years ago as ‘the Lubitsch touch’.
This kind of film is out of fashion, and the pantomime clowning it involves is also out of fashion – yet Hathaway’s regal poise and crisp comic timing are impeccable, while Wilson’s no-filter, chip-on-shoulder persona is at least unpredictable (there’s an amusing non sequitur where she tries to “blend in” with some nuns). That said, one shouldn’t mistake The Hustle for a good movie. The second half goes from patchily funny to downright silly (this is where Hathaway adopts the Teutonic accent), and the gender-flipped aspect doesn’t wholly work either. Women make better scammers than men, we’re told, not just because “we’re so used to faking it” but because they’re always underestimated; no man can admit that a woman may be smarter than him. This is astute (and sadly true) – but in fact the feminist garb is only skin-deep; by the end, our heroines are competing to see who can seduce the young nerd, just like needy women measuring their worth by a man’s attentions since time immemorial. The Hustle is alternately funny, antiquated, pleasingly old-school and a little cringe-inducing. At least it keeps Dale Launer off the streets.
DIRECTED BY Chris Addison
STARRING Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp
US 2019 93 mins