Rebel Wilson can be very funny, but is she the right actress to play a con artist? From “Bridesmaids” to the “Pitch Perfect” movies, Wilson’s characters aren’t interested in hiding their true selves from anyone. They’re unabashedly themselves, in all their crass and vulgar glory.
So while Wilson gets some big laughs in “The Hustle,” a remake of the terrific 1988 Steve Martin-Michael Caine con artist farce “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (itself a remake of the 1964 David Niven-Marlon Brando comedy “Bedtime Story”) she doesn’t quite fit the role. These sorts of double-crossing, who's-fooling-who farces rely on clockwork pacing and timing. But “The Hustle” stops the clock every now and then to work in Wilson’s improvised comic riffs or broad physical comedy.
It isn’t the best comedy of the summer — it isn’t even the best comedy of the month, coming a week after “Long Shot.” But it reawakened my appreciation for the brilliance of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and made me want to chase down “Bedtime Story.” And in spite of its overeagerness to cater to Wilson’s comic instincts, thanks to its spirited lead performances, it is a pretty good time. No fooling.
Taking on the Steve Martin role, Wilson plays an American swindler named Penny who rips off sleazy guys for free meals or a few bucks. She’s a bottom feeder compared to big-game fisherman Josephine (Anne Hathaway), who puts the “artist” in “con artist.” Refined and British (or so she claims), Josephine has financed a palatial estate on the French Riviera from her ill-gotten goods ripping off wealthy men. What unites the two criminals is their belief that the men they cheat are even more immoral than they are. As Josephine puts it: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”
On vacation, Penny stumbles onto Josephine’s turf hoping to make a few scores herself. After Josephine’s polite attempts at driving her off fail, she takes her on as a protégé, and together they fleece a string of wealthy suitors hoping to marry Josephine. But when the partnership has a falling out, the two con artists make a wager: The first to con a sweet tech nerd named Patrick (Alex Sharp) out of $500,000 gets to stay in France, while the other hits the road for good. (The film’s marketing as a female empowerment comedy is undercut by the fact that the women are targeting such a nice, harmless guy for half the movie.)
“The Hustle” plays it fast and broad, with first-time feature director Chris Addison (a veteran of “Veep”) juggling a parade of pratfalls and wacky accents. Wilson, of course, is very comfortable going big for laughs, sometimes to the movie’s benefit, sometimes to its detriment. An extended “training montage” of Penny learning how to throw knives and vault a pommel horse makes no sense — how often do these skills come up for a con artist?
Building on her wry comic turn from last summer’s “Ocean’s 8,” Hathaway is clearly having a ball sending up the pantsuited haute couture of Josephine, and her icy line readings play off well against Wilson.
The first half of “The Hustle” is a little ragged, but things snap into focus in the second half, in which the two con artists compete to swindle Patrick. It forces Wilson to rein it in a little because Penny has to play a character, while Hathaway gets to go even bigger, as Josephine impersonating a wacky German doctor just a little more subtle than a character in a “Pink Panther” movie.
The funniest character in the film, though, may be Josephine’s manservant, played by Reginald Woodeson, who delivers a remarkable slow-burn comic performance despite remaining totally silent for nearly all of the movie.