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‘The Hustle’ doesn’t quite flow

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One of the interesting trends in mainstream cinema over the past few years is the gender-swapped remake. We’ve seen a number of these films recently, movies that exchange men for women and vice versa in primary roles. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. And most often … kind of both.

That’s the case with “The Hustle,” the new film starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. A remake of the Michael Caine/Steve Martin-led 1988 comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (itself a remake of 1964’s “Bedtime Story,” a Marlon Brando/David Niven film), “The Hustle” is the story of a pair of con artists caught up in a competition with one another as they ply their trade in a small town on the French Riviera.

It’s a tough sell in some ways – the 1988 film is beloved and the story is highly demanding of the people in the leads. Hathaway and Wilson are both talented enough to make a lot of this stuff work, the truth is that there’s not that much there. There are some solid jokes and a couple of good slapstick set pieces, but it’s not enough. The fairly pedestrian script never reaches the manic comedic energy of its predecessor; Hathaway and Wilson are good, but not quite good enough to help this movie transcend a general sense of formulaicness.

Penny (Rebel Wilson) is a small-time grifter, using a low-rent catfishing scheme to bilk unsuspecting dudes out of a few hundred bucks at a time. Tired of the grind, she decides to try and relocate to somewhere where she might be able to manage a truly big score.

Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is a glamorous British expat living in the French village of Beaumont-sur-Mer, a playground for the wealthy located on the French Riviera. With the help of her butler Albert (Nicholas Woodeson, “Beirut”) and her police department contact Brigitte (Ingrid Oliver, “You, Me and Him”), she fleeces wealthy heirs and titans of industry to finance her own opulent lifestyle.

Josephine is content with her lot … until Penny shows up. Circumstances have put Penny in the possession of information that could ruin Josephine’s situation, and so – blackmail. Specifically, Penny asks Josephine to pass along the secrets of her con artistry, to take her on as a student. Josephine reluctantly agrees, but a rivalry like this one can’t be held down for long.

Eventually, the two win up in a “loser leaves town” wager, one involving taking $500,000 from a clueless millionaire app developer named Thomas (Alex Sharp, “UFO”). The competition is fierce from the get go, with each woman pulling out all of the stops in an effort to get what she believes herself to deserve.

But as we all know, large-scale grifts can get complicated; as the web of lies continues to grow, both Penny and Josephine find themselves questioning the game that they are playing – and the rules by which they are willing to play it.

Before we go any further, a note: I think I had a better time watching “The Hustle” than the film’s quality actually merited. That can be chalked up to the physical experience of watching it. At the screening I attended, there was an audience member sitting two rows behind me that was having a FANTASTIC time. It sounded as though she believed this to be the funniest film she had ever seen. And not in an obnoxious way, either; it was infectious, really. That sort of enjoyment is hard to shake, and so it undoubtedly colored my experience. Seriously – I hope to one day enjoy any piece of media as much as that woman enjoyed “The Hustle.”

This is a movie with some problems. For example, you could certainly argue that hewing so closely to its predecessor’s narrative beats lends a feeling of inessentiality to the proceedings – and you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s a frothy, formulaic comedy – you won’t see many surprises, to be sure. And that predictability does undermine some of the film’s comic potential.

That said, this movie isn’t bad. Certainly not as bad as some would have you believe. There are a couple of genuinely delightful sequences, and sure, the best one – featuring Josephine as minor royalty and Penny as her feral sister – is lifted whole from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (long live Ruprecht the Monkey Boy), but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Hathaway and Wilson have an odd, but still rather appealing chemistry. Hathaway’s nigh-pathological stiffness and Wilson’s reckless physical abandon juxtapose nicely, with both performers leaning hard into their strengths while occasionally taking a page from the playbook of the other. They make a good team, albeit not quite good enough to make this movie totally work.

Sharp brings an easy likeability and general goofiness to his portrayal of Thomas, serving as a proper foil for both Hathaway and Wilson. Oliver and Woodeson are both exquisite background players, contributing mightily in the relatively brief moments where they turn up. And there are some great supporting performers sprinkled throughout – highlights include Dean Norris and Maine’s own Timothy Simons, both of whom have killer scenes.

“The Hustle” never rises to the level of the films that came before it. The refusal to push the envelope results in a movie that, while entertaining enough, could have been so much better. Essentially, it’s OK – and certainly better than advertised – but nothing more.

[2.5 out of 5]

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