Did I feel some affinity with Josephine and Penny’s conned victims after watching The Hustle? Partly. Though it’s not like I wasn’t warned, with a wave of terrible reviews out ahead of my own cinema visit.
The Hustle is a bad film but a great con, where you know you’re being scammed every step of the way but you can’t help but admire their chutzpah.
Still, though it’s uneven and often dismal, wasting the considerable talents of its two leads, my trip wasn’t a completely lost cause. There are three things going for it:
– an Essex girl they meet in a French disco uses the phrase “she’s got a fuzzbox and knows how to use it”, which all lovers of pop will know is a twist on the name of a 1980s all-women British pop band.
– there’s a great visual joke where Rebel Wilson’s low rent scammer Penny Rust, wearing a cheap and tacky shiny black pleather dress, evades a police chase by bending over in a pile of black bin liners.
– I found out I’d been pronouncing clitoris wrong my whole life. (Well since Biology O’level anyway.)
It’s also got Anne Hathaway in it for god’s sake. And a plethora of fabulous outfits, not all of which will see you carted off by the binmen. But for a comedy there are too few jokes, and characters’ motivations are mostly baffling.
A sort-of remake of the 1980s classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in this new version directed by Chris Addison two conwomen are after dirty rotten men.
Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway) is “an animatronic cock tease”, Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson), “a big titted Russell Crowe”. These are the less than flattering labels the two women give each other, though to be honest who wouldn’t be proud to have either description on their business card.
Josephine is elegant, clever, and can spot a vain millionaire at 1000 paces. She may or may not be English – Hathaway’s accent is the love child of Mary Poppins (new version) and the Queen, neither of whom are actually that posh anyway – but it’s never clear if the character is putting it on or Hathaway is. She also tells her victims she’s 63rd in line to the British throne, though to be fair most of us are probably around there on the list.
Penny is a small town scammer, selling sob stories about gorgeous sisters sold into slavery in return for extra pudding. All her scams are related to men’s obsession with women’s looks, particularly enormous breasts, rather than their personalities. When she’s not after food she’s persuading boob-obsessed suckers to part with money for a fake Tinder date’s breast enlargement. She wants to land bigger fish, and is obsessed with the legendary Medusa, a conwoman who she suspects could be Josephine.
They meet on board a luxury train en route to the French Riviera where Josephine lives, though at first Josephine does everything she can to get rid of Penny, eventually sending her back to the US believing that the Mafia are after her.
But Penny keeps reappearing like, well, a bad penny, and eventually Josephine gives in and decides to train her up (why she does this makes no sense whatsoever).
Josephine’s success as a con artist is based on her belief that men are simple creatures, convinced that all women are even simpler than them. Pairing up, Josephine and Penny proceed to con a series of rich, daft millionaires out of a collection of engagement rings whose value is matched only by their hideousness.
Next they decide on a competition to con Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp), a young tech millionaire staying at a nearby luxury hotel. They’ve got a week – and the loser will have to leave town. Penny’s back story, that she suffers from psychosomatic blindness, is intended to scam $500,000 for alleged treatment, and Josephine, wanting the proceeds for herself, ends up pretending to be the expert German doctor Penny needs to see.
But Thomas turns out to be rather nice, and genuinely enamoured of Penny.
Josephine’s unorthodox treatment of Penny’s blindness, which takes place in Westerburg’s hotel room, is intermittently amusing but goes on far too long, and if you have a germ phobia you may be put off French fries for life.
Sharp’s is a decent performance, until the very end when it becomes ridiculous. Hathaway and Wilson make the best of their weak material. A sharper script and tighter directing would have made this much more fun.
There’s even a bizarre interlude at a disco with a group of three middle aged Essex girls (Shiraz, Chloe and Other Chloe), who Penny ropes in to help her thrash Josephine in their contest. It’s all rather embarrassing but it does include that Fuzzbox mention (Don’t say you don’t learn anything in my reviews. First social contract theory in John Wick: Parabellum, and now a discussion about fuzzboxes.)
There are few decent jokes in The Hustle. Far better are the clothes. When Josephine is working, she dresses for each part she’s playing, though her outfits are usually one colour. A cute black structured velvet cocktail dress as the German doctor, an elegant sparkly evening gown for an old man trying to flog his wife’s diamond bracelet without her knowing, an unthreatening pale blue maxi dress when reeling in a Texan millionaire. Her own preferred wardrobe is elegant but much funkier: mustard-yellow wide pants, asymmetric patterns in bright colours like a Mondrian print.
Penny’s outfits are a little more accessible to the rest of us, being available at market stalls up and down the country: cheap t-shirts, usually with pictures of fruit or palm trees on them.
Despite Josephine’s great wealth and lovely house (where apparently anyone can walk right up into the gardens) the locations look cheap, with everything taking place in one hotel.
What appears to be the ending, at the airport waving off Westerburg (rather a good scene actually), turns out not to be. The actual ending is utterly ridiculous. It doesn’t fit, and it’s unfunny and badly acted. They’d have done much better to say goodbye to this particular relationship at the airport (good advice for life too, I find).
Watch the trailers below, or clips from the film here.
The Hustle – teaser trailer:
The Hustle – full-length trailer: