1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels isn’t often cited as the best that 1980s comedy had to offer, but it did have one thing going for it – Steve Martin at his absolute best.
With Michael Caine infusing his successful conman with pomposity and pretentiousness, Martin took the role of Freddy Benson and made it as memorable as any other he performed during his decade at the pinnacle of Hollywood comedy.
Which is why it’s baffling that Chris Addison’s 2019 remake fails to update the script, rather, the movie asks Rebel Wilson to achieve the impossible feat of repeating Martin’s antics and elevating a decent, if somewhat lightweight story to comedy glory.
Wilson plays Penny, a small-time con artist who ‘catfishes’ young men by convincing them they’re going to meet the woman of their dreams. When they meet her instead, should they show the requisite level of disappointment, she cons a few thousand bucks out of them and does a runner.
With the cops closing in, Penny decides to hit the road to Europe where she aims to use her stereotypical boorishness to wheedle a few grand out of unsuspecting European men. Only, while en route, Penny comes across Josephine (Hathaway), a far more successful con artist who quickly grows tired of Penny messing up her well-laid plans.
Those who remember Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (or indeed, the David Niven/ Marlon Bradon vehicle Bedtime Story, upon with Scoundrels was based), will know how it plays out from here, for The Hustle sticks to its source material with frustrating loyalty.
Particularly as the script stumbles upon a far more interesting theme in Penny and her approach to the men who treat her with such cruelty. It’s a theme that crops up briefly, but gets lost as the cast do their best to emulate the original.
Instead, Addison (who cut his teeth working on the improv-heavy political comedy, The Thick of It) lets Wilson loose and leaves the camera rolling. So we get fat jokes, a huge variety of insults and slapstick comedy. And while that shouldn’t be entirely knocked – there are some laughs to be had – it feels like a missed opportunity.
And with a script this lightweight, there’s nothing new, interesting or indeed surprising to find.
Further, there are times when it feels as though the times have moved on, and where Martin’s Ruprecht is safely locked away in 1988, it might be best to leave him there.
Hathaway does a decent job of playing the stuck-up straight woman, while Alex Sharp is instantly forgettable as the key mark later in the tale. And it’s this gender switch that really costs the film by the end – in terms of a win for feminism, The Hustle drops the ball.