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The Hustle (2019)::rating::1.5::rating::1.5

As goofy, glorious 80s movies go, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was damn near top of the heap.  The chemistry between highfalutin Michael Caine and a wacky, off-kilter Steve Martin was almost cosmic in its comedic perfection.  I feel like I overuse the word “romp,” but there it is.  This inevitable remake, with solid professionals like Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson taking on the title roles, should have a lot going for it before the wheels even leave the runway.  Unfortunately, not even star power can pull this lumbering vehicle off the ground.  The Hustle offers a few light chuckles and maybe even some glimmers of genuine cuteness, but mostly this is the cinematic equivalent of being draped in a cold, wet beach towel.

Rebel Wilson plays Penny, a bubbly, scatterbrained con artist who fleeces horny, sexist barflies by way of fake Tinder profiles.  Penny grows weary of her cheap scams, and decides to search for posher marks in the South of France.  Once there, she meets Josephine, a high-end trickster who specializes in separating pig billionaires from their jewelry.  When the duo spots a geeky tech millionaire, they find themselves playing, sometimes with and sometimes against, each other to empty this young dork’s bank account.  When the mark starts to fall for Penny, this changes the stakes for both women.

The Hustle feels like one of those ugly living rooms that has so much potential for a makeover.  The stale, limp gags get painted on its walls like mauve paint.  Cartoonish, awkwardly written supporting characters carpet the film, much like disgusting, avocado shag.  Tim Blake Nelson, a tremendously gifted character actor, is wasted as a surly butler.  And Dean Norris, so brilliant in Breaking Bad, is reduced to a bolo tie and a Foghorn Leghorn accent as an obnoxiously ignorant mark.  (Why is it that when a millionaire is from the South, movies always assume they have to be unbelievably gullible?)  But the movie’s biggest crime lies in its misuse of Hathaway and Wilson.  Both are strong actresses with razor sharp timing, and they do everything they can to put some oomph into the movie.  The bad news is that when you got jokes about eating french fries fished out of toilets and oysters straight off the ground, there’s only so much that talented people can do.  With a sharper eye for comedy and a smartly designed script, these two leads could’ve transformed The Hustle into something special.

I go back and watch Scoundrels, and it never gets old.  In fact, I’ve always thought that Caine and Martin could’ve made several more movies together.  You can’t fake chemistry, and those two nailed it.  Hathaway and Wilson have it too, and The Hustle gives us a frustrating taste of what they could do with a better movie.  It’s too bad they don’t do mulligans for actors, because these two have earned another shot.

(Note:  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a remake of Bedtime Story, a 1964 film starring Marlon Brando, David Niven, and Shirley Jones.  As a kid, I never knew that one of my favorite comedies derived from another.  This movie feels like a copy of a copy, like that last, pea-brained Michael Keaton in Multiplicity.)

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