The first time, the tale involved David Niven, that avatar of Englishness, coping with the encroachment of an American GI, played, with a moderately successful stab at comedy, by Marlon Brando. Next, it was a sublime Michael Caine and a near-peak Steve Martin offering their own take on the transatlantic relationship. This time around, the twist—and, as best I can tell, the entire rationale for the film’s existence—is that the roles have been gender-swapped: Anne Hathaway plays Josephine, the urbane, sophisticated crook, and Rebel Wilson is Penny, her tackily provincial partner/nemesis, hailing from Down Under rather than across the pond.
Such XY-to-XX remakes/reboots have become a bit of a subgenre of late, notably with 2016’s Ghostbusters and last year’s Ocean’s 8. But for all the absurd uproar those films provoked, they at least did something with their underlying premise: a clever spritz of underestimated women here, an endearing dollop of female companionship there. The Hustle, by contrast—directed by Chris Addison and written by Jac Schaeffer—is a paint-by-numbers, scene-by-scene, and even line-by-line retelling of its more accomplished antecedents. Like Niven and Caine before her, Hathaway’s Josephine frets over her competition from Wilson’s relatively unaccomplished Penny by noting that even “a poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare big game away.”
On the occasions when The Hustle tries to play up its new gender dynamics, it falls flat on its face, often literally. Beginning with the obvious: Josephine is presented as regally gorgeous, and Penny as an overweight slob. There are repeated references to Penny’s extraordinary appetite, she spills food on herself when she’s not spilling it on Josephine, and she falls down—on her face, on her back, over a pommel horse—again and again and again. Her go-to con-artist move (even late in the film) is to rush into the lobby of a fancy hotel, shout “What are the signs of a stroke? I can’t feel my tits!” and then collapse. Beyond all reason, the filmmakers seem to believe we will find this hilarious.
Hathaway’s Josephine is, if anything, a greater problem. Neither Hathaway nor the filmmakers seem to have any idea of who she is supposed to be, in part because they mix together elements of both protagonists, the pristine European aristocrat and the American gigolo. That Josephine is never, not even for a moment, convincingly British doesn’t help. (An early scene, in which she plays a ditzy American—or, I guess more accurately, a refined Brit pretending to be a ditzy American—is too convincing for its own good.) But worse, she, like Penny, fulfills the very sexist stereotypes that this theoretically pro-women movie purports to undermine.
In another early scene, Josephine explains that she cons men out of their money because they deserve it for their treatment of women, and that the only other way to get the lucre would be to have sex with them, a practice for which she has obvious contempt. Yet when push comes to shove in her competition with Penny over a boyish tech billionaire (Alex Sharp), such qualms quickly fall by the wayside, in part due to her withering assessment of Penny’s physical charms. At a dance club, Josephine grinds her posterior against their mutual mark with a frictional intensity that threatens to ignite the building. She later shows up in his hotel room for an attempted sexual seduction of such ham-fisted desperation as to be actively anti-erotic.