God, I’m a sucker for caper movies. From Charade to the last four Fast and Furious spectacles, there’s something devilishly delightful about hoodwinking and double-dealing. Maybe it’s because I saw the Marlon Brando and David Niven-starring Bedtime Story as a kid; however, I never saw its remake, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Thus, The Hustle – a remake more of the latter than the former – has this advantage on me. Its jokes are amusing, its premise is dashing, and its twists are entertaining, so the film works at least on this level.
Even more eye-catching are the comedic talents of the film’s leads, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, who bounce off each other like Zorbs for the duration of the picture. The differences in their forms of comedy are staggering, but used effectively to further their characters’ definitions. Wilson, long known for her physical goofs and style, looks relaxed with comedic timing and jocularity, while Hathaway performs her humor rather than becomes it. This isn’t a knock on Hathaway; these differences make their oil-and-water relationship all the more satisfying and a joy to watch.
Wilson plays short-con operator Penny, a grifter hitting marks for a couple hundred dollars at a time. After the film’s opening gambit – which gives us the joy of watching her take down the worst example of toxic masculinity – she wends her way to a French resort town, where the moneyed enjoy opulent hotel suites and the lush life. She’s not weak, and she can hold her own quite well. But she doesn’t know she’s just stepped in master con artist – emphasize the “art” in “artist” due to her imaginative schemes – Josephine’s territory.
As played by Hathaway, Josephine is a driven woman utterly incapable of letting her guard down, even in front of the people closest to her. Her eyes never stop moving and assessing, envisioning her next four moves while her marks still haven’t made a single one. It’s a performance rooted in subtlety, and Hathaway captures it all with assured suavity and grace, striding through each frame with cold and calculating confidence. Penny, on the other hand, is about as bumbling and idiotic as you can get, but she has more of a heart and soul than Josephine. She’s not far removed from Wilson’s role in the Pitch Perfect films, bearing a similarly clueless style and well-intended stupidity. It’s the perfect match for Josephine, who takes Penny on as an apprentice, giving her fitting roles in her con jobs.
There are possible romantic sparks flying in the film’s second half, but who cares? It’s secondary compared to the hijinks Penny and Josephine get up to while competing for a score. These two are the film’s most valuable players, polar opposites in thought and modus operandi; anything else is fodder. Which is the film’s major failing – what else, really, is there to care about? Penny’s overwrought, yet exceedingly fast infatuation with a clumsy tech millionaire? Josephine’s assistants and the seemingly endless parade of dupes?
No, Jac Schaeffer’s script – with all the screenwriters of the previous two incarnations credited alongside her – centers us right on Penny and Josephine. It’s their showcase; the script merely provides positioning and a backdrop for our leads to shine. Their chemistry is based on a very thinly-veiled contempt for one another, and it’s damn good fun watching each of them give and take their jabs. While the story suffers from a lack of support, both the stylish and strong Hathaway and Wilson more than make up for it with every one-liner and pratfall.