Here's the scam that Penny Rust, a small-time con artist played by Rebel Wilson, runs in the opening scene of The Hustle: A sleazy bro walks into a bar, expecting to meet a beautiful, buxom woman he has spent a month courting on a dating app. Instead, he's greeted by Penny, who introduces herself as the woman's sister and makes up some cockamamie story about how her sister is really flat-chested but needs only $500 to get the augmentation to become the stunner he expected. And she takes Venmo if it's convenient to him.
It's a terrible, graceless, impossible scheme, made plausible only by the idiocy of her mark, which would still have to be world-historic in order for her to pull it off. But more crucially, it's the first sign that The Hustle will fail to seduce the most important mark in any heist movie: the audience. The screenwriters can layer one double-cross after another, but if there's no sense of elegance, sophistication and fun in the way a con film toys with expectation and pulls out the rug, then the con is doomed. And the cons don't get that much smoother or smarter here than the fake-boob gambit.
A year after being the best thing about Ocean's 8, a gender-flipped variation on the Ocean's Eleven, Anne Hathaway is back for a second gender-flipped remake of a remake, with greatly diminished returns. Part heist films, part buddy comedies, 1964's Bedtime Story and its more widely regarded 1988 remake, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, turn on the collaboration between mismatched con artists — one a sophisticated Brit who targets the wealthy, the other a lowdown oaf who's looking to up his game. The first paired David Niven and Marlon Brando, the latter in a rare (and bizarre) comic role, and the second had Michael Caine and Steve Martin step ably into those respective parts. Hathaway and Wilson, an Aussie of cheerful vulgarity, seem like a winning combination.
The star chemistry never materializes, sullied by nonsensical scams, overly aggressive and cartoonish direction, and two lead performances that don't work together or apart. After that labored opening, there's still the lingering promise of a fizzy little comedy in the French Riviera, where Hathaway's Josephine Chesterfield makes an easy living separating ultrawealthy men from their money. When Penny follows her home, looking for a piece of the action, Josephine sees an opportunity to train her as a protégé and a partner for ever-more-lucrative scores. Once the two have successfully pulled off a few jobs together, they set their sights on a nerdy Mark Zuckerberg type (Alex Sharp) who has millions in dot-com dollars up for grabs.
The Hustle seizes on a theme, vocalized by Josephine, that justifies switching the gender roles from Bedtime Story and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, arguing that women make better con artists because men always believe they're smarter. Her secret is simply to turn their perceived strength against them. Yet save for a nifty sleight of hand by Josephine at a casino, the thieving in The Hustle doesn't bear out her hypothesis because it relies on rank stupidity rather than a battle of wits. One "Lord of the Rings" scam, involving Josephine securing an engagement ring and Penny scaring the men away as her deranged sister, works three times within what appears to be a week or a month. How does she get a rock that fast?
Hathaway is so reliably excellent in comic, dramatic and musical roles that her stilted performance as Josephine comes as a shock, especially considering she had just stolen Ocean's 8 playing a deliciously haughty version of a Hollywood superstar. Here she works a British accent so unconvincing that Penny calls her out for its Julie Andrews quality and seems to hint that the film will reveal it as fake somewhere down the line. As for Wilson, she has always been inclined to go big and bawdy, but there's no evidence of a deeper character beyond improvised naughtiness and frequent pratfalls. It's fine that Hathaway and Wilson make an unlikely pair; it's less fine they make such an awkward pair.
The secret of a great con movie is to make a complicated job look easy, pulling off a stylish syncopation of many moving parts. The Hustle does the opposite, botching an unsophisticated job and scrambling desperately to make it seem like a snap.