Scams: They’re so hot right now. And from Elizabeth Holmes to Lori Loughlin, white women are having a cultural heyday as alleged scammers, grifters and con artists. So “The Hustle,” a gender-swapped retool of the 1988 Steve Martin-Michael Caine comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” (itself a remake of the 1964 Marlon Brando-David Niven film “Bedtime Story”), has an impeccable sense of timing. If you’re jonesing for scam content, fresh out of Theranos podcasts, college admissions scandal depositions or “Anna Delvey” courtroom fashions, this capricious little caper just might be the fix.
In director Chris Addison’s “The Hustle,” written by Jac Schaeffer, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson pair up as rival con artists with very different styles. The poised and proper Josephine (Hathaway) leans heavily on breathy flirtations and Oscar-worthy crocodile tear production, while the unrefined and bawdy Penny (Wilson) has a knack for crafting elaborate narratives that usually involve human trafficking. But whether they’re working with or against each other, they just inexplicably work.
With this many scammers on the loose, you never know who’s scamming whom. Penny encounters Josephine on the train, where the two mutually recognize a fellow con woman. Penny blackmails her way into a few grifting lessons, while Josephine schemes to scare Penny off her turf. It all comes to a head when they zero in on a shared mark: a hapless young tech inventor (Alex Sharp). A wager ensues.
Set in the French Riviera (in the fictional town of Beaumont-Sur-Mer, cribbed from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), “The Hustle” nods to its predecessors and feels at times like “To Catch a Thief” meets “Absolutely Fabulous.” But what makes “The Hustle” work is its stars. Your mileage may vary, but Wilson’s particular brand of wordy chaotic energy always enlivens the proceedings and brings that unpredictable sense of weird to everything she’s in. And Hathaway — well, she’s peerless when it comes to slinking ostentatiously, all while pouting and spouting some of the most outlandish accent work committed to film. It’s a performance that is all kinds of campy, and it’s nice to see her having fun.
Penny’s lessons are a chance for the two women to elucidate the ethos behind their scammery. Josephine declares that all men want to be heroes, so she goes hard on the damsel-in-distress routine. But the way she’s written, without much backstory, she seems a little sociopathic in her naked determination to fleece men out of anything she can get. As for Penny, scamming is her way of getting back at men who overlook her romantically and sexually. “When he looks at me like that,” indicating disappointment, “that’s when I decide to rob him blind,” she says.
But there’s always a troubling wrinkle with directly gender-swapping classic comedies that don’t take into account the inherent power dynamics at play. While “The Hustle” stays true to the twists and turns of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” one can’t help but feel like the film, which preaches the power of women over the men who might underestimate them, is ultimately a bit of an 11th hour bait-and-switch of its own, message-wise. It’s the irony of all ironies that one walks away from “The Hustle” feeling a little, well, hustled.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG-13, on appeal for crude sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts May 10 in general release