This is the third iteration of a film premise. Its novelty is that it is the first to feature two women in the lead parts.
The story is this: A classy grifter, Josephine Chesterton (Anne Hathaway) has a nice gig fleecing wealthy men for money and jewels on the French Riviera. She has been successful enough to establish herself in a villa overlooking the sea in Beaumont-sur-Mer and to assemble a supporting staff that includes a cooperative police inspector.
Josephine is upset when a cloddish American arrives in town and sets out to compete for the same clientele. The bumbler, who has overstayed her welcome with the New York Police Department, is played by Rebel Wilson, who plays the part of Rebel Wilson Penny Rust.
Josephine tries to run Penny out of town, but the interloper returns (like a bad penny, perhaps) after learning that Josephine works the more elite end of the same con game. Penny agrees to leave town only after Josephine shares the tricks of the de luxe version of their mutual trade.
If you’ve heard this story before, it is probably because it was a relatively popular 1988 comedy, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which starred Michael Caine as Lawrence Jamieson and Steve Martin as Freddy Benson, the high-low fleecers of wealthy women. A 1964 version, “Bedtime Story,” starred David Niven as the courtly Jamieson and a camping-it-up Marlon Brando in the Benson role. (Both are easy to find online.)
The second and third movies follow the plot of the first almost entirely, with different endings that reflect changes in social mores. The current version arguably carries everything a bit too far.
None of the movies is great, frankly, but this one is the weakest. Hathaway is a good actress, but her script calls for her to shift styles rather than stick to the noble-highbrow approach that worked better for Niven and Caine. The result is less contrast and more overt battling between the two characters. And Wilson, while good-natured and funny, lacks Steve Martin’s comic range and Marlon Brando’s acting chops.
In addition, this new version mashes in a lot of 21st century vulgarity — Tinder, cellphones, STD-talk and a mile-high club joke, among others — to no particular effect.
Finally, the premise of all three movies — two hustlers swindling people and then competing to see which is the more successful — leaves all the films without natural resolutions. The third act in each is a short surprise, a rabbit pulled out of a hat, that ends the thing.
It has been reported that the “The Hustle” was made almost two years ago, and it seems the studio knew it had a bit of turkey on its hands. The opening was scheduled for a relatively weak weekend, but it still was outsold, four to one, by the not particularly distinguished “Detective Pikachu,” which comes from the company remembered most recently for that silly Pokémon GO game a few years back.