Originally titled Dirty Women, The Hustle is a remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was itself already a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story. However, The Hustle is much more indebted to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels than Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was to Bedtime Story, repeating the same story, location and even some of the same jokes of Frank Oz’s 1988 film. That’s not to say that The Hustle is merely derivative, since it manages to address the audience’s affection for its predecessor while also crafting an engaging and entertaining story on its own terms. As in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, we’re presented with two con artists working the French Riviera – Josephine Chesterfield, played by Anne Hathaway, based on Michael Caine’s character in the original film, and Penny Rust, played by Rebel Wilson, based on Steve Martin’s character in the original film. While Josephine is an established con artist, with a wide retinue of employees, Penny is more of a grifter. After they decide that there’s not enough room in Beaumont-sur-Mer for the two of them, they decide upon a wager: whoever can extract five hundred thousand dollars from a chosen mark gets to keep the town as their working ground. As the film proceeds, they up the ante further, deciding that whoever can induce the mark to fall in love with them gets to keep the town as their personal pool of income. In the original film, the mark was Janet Colgate, played by Glenne Headley, but here it’s Thomas Westerburg, a bumbling tech billionaire played by Alex Sharp.
Like most films that have been gender flipped in recent years, The Hustle has received a fair amount of criticism for not adding “anything” beyond female protagonists. Like most gender flipped films, too, The Hustle is defter than most critics have given it credit for, especially since the original film was a striking feminist statement for the period in which it was made. During the first two acts of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson effectively teaches Steve Martin’s Freddy Benson how to game women, instructing him in all the ways that he can command the female gaze, and separate his marks from their cash. In the third act, however, we discover that their mark, Janet Colgate, is herself the infamous con artist, known as “The Jackal,” who has been terrorizing the Riviera. Their efforts to command Janet’s gaze is turned back upon themselves when she leaves with their money, leaving them with nothing to look at but each other, as they try to figure out where their masculine suaveness went wrong. In one final twist, however, Janet returns to the Riviera, and gathers them into her fold, as the three form a kind of queer family devoted to the con.
While The Hustle retains this basic narrative structure, the gender flipping means that Josephine and Penny are now trying to command the male gaze. Since their competition means that they have to extract both cash and adoration from their mark, it quickly turns into an exercise in screen presence, and a dialogue about what it means to captivate male viewers in the cinema. Before we get to this dialogue, however, director Chris Addison establishes Josephine and Penny as two very different types of con artists. On the one hand Josephine, who first introduces herself as Janet, plays like a continuation of Headley’s character in the original film. Her con depends on elegance above all else – both the elegance of her own attire and deportment, and the elegance of the infrastructure she has built around her con, which includes key employees at a local casino, as well as the staff at her ocean property, which often looks as if it is shot on the same location as Frank Oz’s film.
By contrast, Penny works in a more opportunistic and peripatetic way, moving from place to place, and first coming across Josephine on a train. While she seems to have adopted a more unkempt approach to the grift, she relies just as much upon what her marks expect of a female gaze. Instead of providing this gaze herself, however, she deflects it into the picture of a supermodel she carries on her phone, as well as her knowledge of films that speak to male audiences. Sometimes she combines the two, as when she claims that the woman is her sister who has been “Taken.” Sometimes she just relies on one of these strategies, as in the opening scene, when she rocks up at a bar and tells her mark that the woman on her phone is his online date. Interestingly, in both cases she speaks even more compellingly to this male gaze than Josephine, precisely because she never directly addresses it, instead promising her marks that dispensing with cash will bring it into focus.
As in the original film, the first act largely focuses on Josephine training Penny in becoming a con artist, turning the early stages of The Hustle into a parody makeover movie. For while Josephine may be trying to remake Penny in her own image, she’s never really anything but a foil for Penny, just as the film as a whole would be much more entertaining if Josephine was forced to accommodate herself to Penny’s image. In fact, this is precisely what happens, despite the way in which Josephine originally tries to train and remodel Penny. As might be expected, Josephine starts by teaching Penny to become more feminine, and more performative in her femininity, with a particular focus on how to court the male gaze so as to achieve maximal financial and affective remuneration. In other words, Josephine teaches Penny how to become an actress, even as she reminds her that there are only certain roles she can play. In the most self-consciously cinematic scene in the film, Josephine jettisons a prospective suitor at just the right time by introducing him to “Hortense the Feral Princess,” a character played by Penny behind a cinematic-sized window, and in a lush mise-en-scene, that has been constructed just for this purpose. The import of this scene, in which Penny spouts fairy tale sound bites, is that Penny needs to learn how to act like a lady, but also needs to learn that she can only inhabit this ladylike role in a grotesque and abject manner.
Put bluntly, then, Josephine teaches Penny how to be a side character – a way of repelling men once they have been sufficiently drawn in by her own presence and performance. While her mantra may be that “there is nothing more compelling to a man than a vulnerable woman,” Josephine’s own performance of vulnerability comes to depend on Penny’s various displays of invulnerability and, hence, unfemininity. One of the subtle differences from the original film is that the majority of marks tend to be Republicans, or at least potential Middle American cinemagoers, rather than aristocrats in the traditional sense. As they operate in tandem to extract cash and affect, Josephine and Penny’s performance thus comes to represent the dialogue between vulnerable and abject femininity – and their inextricability from one another – that animates the male gaze as Hollywood understands it.
It is within that dialogue that the central twist of The Hustle emerges. Since most audiences of the film have presumably seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it’s relatively clear, in advance, that Josephine and Penny’s mark, Thomas Westerburg, is the infamous “Medusa” con artist who has been terrorizing the Riviera. In fact, knowing this twist just makes the deeper twist of The Hustle more resonant – namely, that Penny’s ungainliness is actually more elegant than Josephine’s more traditional elegance. Rather than removing Penny’s ungainliness, Josephine’s training sessions simply refine and distil it, as Penny converges the elegance and ungainliness that are typically separated in Hollywood’s affective economy into a single person and performance. In an unexpected way, then, The Hustle affords Rebel Wilson one of her best roles, and is almost an apotheosis of her comic style, as she moves from one ingenious act of elegant ungainliness to the next. As she evolves and refines, she never stops orienting her ungainliness with respect to the supermodel on the phone, but instead reframes elegance to refer to the way she slips and slides around this normative femininity.
Whereas Josephine uses elegance to trap the male gaze, Penny uses elegant ungainliness, which turns out to be a more successful strategy for two reasons. First, it defuses the role that she plays as Josephine’s abject sidekick, and so divests Josephine’s performance of vulnerability of any real meaning, turning that bid at vulnerability into an abject spectacle in itself. Second, Penny’s elegant ungainliness refuses to ever quite address the male gaze, keeping it hanging in limbo, waiting for a consummation that never comes. In the original film, Freddy’s strategy to snare Janet was to pretend that he was unable to walk, as a result of an acute psychological trauma. In The Hustle, this gag is configured more tightly around the gaze, as Penny pretends to suffer from hysterical blindness to attract Thomas’ attention.
Obviously, this is a bit of a cheap joke – the disability humour of the 80s hasn’t dated well here. However, hysterical blindness also becomes an apt summary of Penny’s situation, as well as an emblem of what makes Rebel Wilson’s screen persona so powerful and provocative. By claiming to be hysterically blind, Penny has a good pretext to ask Thomas for money, invoking an experimental clinic in Austria that requires a five hundred thousand dollar fee. Yet hysterical blindness also proves potent in extracting affect from Thomas, who grows more and more entranced by Penny’s gaze, which becomes a conundrum that he somehow has to solve. As the film proceeds, Penny challenges Thomas to provide just the right amount of financial and affective capital to enable her to truly look at him – a con so powerful that he retains all of his attraction and attachment to her even after he cons her.
These scenes where Penny affects hysterical blindness play like a heightened version of Rebel’s screen persona, which often involves playing around with the relation between gaze and body in this way. Watching it, I realised how brilliantly Rebel either strategically disconnects her gaze and body, so that the two seem to be operating independently, or otherwise adopts gazes that aren’t meant to be attached to her body type within Hollywood orthodoxy. In both case, the female gaze is denaturalized, creating a comic style that is intense and abstracted all at once – an awryness encapsulated in the way her Australian accent tends to offset the Hollywood films she appears in. Rebel has rarely tried to affect an American accent, and her Australian accent is more pronounced here than in any of her other American films, to the point where its lexicon and address starts to seep into the screenplay as a whole, culminating with a surreal moment in which Josephine references Cootamundra, New South Wales. In that sense, Rebel’s comic style has always been strategically, hysterically blind, finding a kind of apotheosis here during the incredible comic set pieces in which Penny looks directly at Thomas, while also deflecting his own direct gaze.
The other great twist of The Hustle is that Penny’s gaze, and her ability to command the male gaze, is more resilient than Josephine’s. Given the way that Penny’s approach splits the difference between elegant and abject femininity, Josephine can no longer depend upon the traditional elegance that has got her the grift in the past. Instead, she has to reiterate the distinction between elegant and abject femininity by transforming her earlier attempts to “fix” Penny’s body into the core of her flirtation, and the core of her grift. Accordingly, she adopts the role of Penny’s doctor, affecting a sadistic, dominatrix-style personality that is both at odds with her previous elegance but also the logical conclusion of it. She then romances Thomas by disciplining Penny’s body and gaze – or, rather the relation between Penny’s body and gaze, reining her in each time she dissociates her gaze too loosely from her body, or fixes her gaze too emphatically upon Thomas when he is not watching. The most punishing of these sessions sees her assessing Penny’s eyes by pretending to hit her with a stick, blowing into her eyeballs, and enacting a number of other tortuous tests to see whether she can trick Penny into acknowledging that she can see Thomas watching them.
Rebel’s Australian accent has never been more irreverent than during this sustained scene where Josephine “tests” Penny’s eyes – and it is this resilience in the face of the male gaze that is the real hustle of The Hustle. Rebel has also never felt like more of a Rebel than she does here, as she and Penny singlehandedly thwart Josephine and Hathaway’s assumption of a male gaze, and so puncture the male gaze itself. Accordingly, about halfway through, The Hustle starts to explicitly acknowledge the possibility that its audience may be predominantly women, and to question the necessity of appealing to the male gaze even – or especially – in films designed for primarily feminine audience. In a turn so incongruous it effectively breaks the fourth wall, several cast members from The Only Way is Essex intrude upon the action, first helping Penny, then helping Josephine, and finally demonstrating that both women have been conned by competing for the male gaze to begin with. This appeal to reality stars, and the female audiences they address, crossed over into the promotion of The Hustle, which became the first film product placement on Real Housewives of New York, sparking outrage from fans of the reality series who claimed it ruptured the “reality effect.”
Yet rupturing the reality effect of Hollywood is, effectively, what The Hustle sets out to do, occupying a surreal space between cinema and reality television, and between actresses and their roles, that perhaps explains its lukewarm reception amongst critics, especially in comparison to the self-contained atmosphere of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Watched alongside the film, the Real Housewives integrated product placement of the film doesn’t feel clunky so much as performative, enacting and capturing the same space between reality and Hollywood reality as the film itself. In both cases, the cast short-circuit the male gaze, even for female viewers, making for a cross-medial collaboration that’s more playful and irreverent than anything in the original two films, as delightful as they both are. My only criticism of The Hustle, then, apart from a few half-baked jokes, is that it feels like it deserves to luxuriate in the length of a reality series – or, failing that, a longer cinematic platform than its ninety minute running time. If it had been more successful, you could easily see it spawning a sequel, or even a serialised release schedule, but as it stands it’s a wonderful oddity, proof of gender flipping’s indifference to the gazes most outraged by it.