Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson Try to Bring Back Old Hollywood—I Wish They Would
DIRECTOR: CHRIS ADDISON/2019
Let me be probably the first film critic to go on record saying…I miss the Hays Code.
What is the Hays Code, you ask? It was the list of “Don’t” show that and “Be Careful” about this that ruled American moviemaking from 1930 to 1968. Named for Will Hays, a politician-turned-Hollywood-man, the industry’s self-imposed censorship guidelines attempted to keep language, violence, and sex (among other things) within the prescribed lines of cultural decency so Joseph McCarthy types couldn’t find a reason for the government to take over that task themselves.
While both my creative bent and Journalism degree loathe limits to free speech (and, let’s face it, some of the expectations were racist and kookoo unsustainable from the get-go), I miss how creative it forced filmmakers to be. You can find story after story about how writers, directors, and producers had to rework or scrap their original ideas to appease the Code or risk audiences rejecting their work if it didn’t. But decades later, we’re still watching It Happened One Night, Casablanca, Notorious, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and plenty of those other films, still able to read between the lines of the subtler, more inventive writing.
In many ways, The Hustle harkens back to that era of filmmaking: A comic playing against a straight woman, a mod opening credits sequence, a setting in the south of France. It also coasts on the star power of its leads, a tactic that has helped me through a number of subpar Frank Sinatra films. (Looking at you, The Tender Trap.)
Rebel Wilson plays Penny Rust, an uncouth but successful con artist who targets shallow and slimy men in dive bars. At least, she thinks she’s successful until she meets Josephine Bougie-Something-or-Another (Anne Hathaway), a refined con artist who targets shallow and slimy men in high-end casinos. Her larceny has bought her a home by the sea, loyal accomplices, and a wardrobe to die for.
If you don’t remember these characters’ names, that’s okay—they’re really just pseudonyms for Wilson and Hathaway’s charisma running the film start to finish. All those Oscar runs made us forget the credit Hathaway deserves for her comedic chops, but it seems she enjoyed her time in Ocean’s Eight so much she wants to keep coming back to them. She and Wilson appear to be having a blast here because they find an easy chemistry in their opposites-attract comedy duo.
Its biggest problem comes with the most important selling point: The humor.
Now if you can’t keep the central conflict straight, that is a problem. Is The Hustle about Penny learning the ropes from the more experienced Josephine? Josephine trying to take her territory back from Penny? The pair pulling off a big heist on a tech mogul (Alex Sharp, perhaps as an even better young Mark Zuckerberg than Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network)? And thematically, is it about the need for friendship? How our arrogance blinds us to others’ vulnerability? Or is it about pretty much nothing at all and is just here for a good time? I’m not sure, and neither is the film.
The Hustle tries on all of those aliases, but never commits to any of them, which is probably why the trailers had no idea how to sell it. They gave away some of the best laughs without the context to appreciate them, and they tried to brand this lady con artist team up as some sort of feminist statement, even though that’s just another quasi-theme that lacks development. Hey, at least that matches its heroines, who never get to be as developed or interesting as their zany fake identities.
But more than the lack of something to say, its biggest problem comes with the most important selling point: The humor. Both ladies are fearless, and Wilson’s comedic timing is impeccable, but none of that matters if only 50 percent of the jokes are up to par. A number of moments made me laugh out loud, but many others made me roll my eyes, which is when I began yearning for the (sort of) good ol’ Hays days. Too often, The Hustle relies on the lowest common denominator of humor. Lazy innuendos and hackneyed gross-out gags interrupt whatever momentum this movie musters and break the ties to Old Hollywood it’s trying to make. Never does it feel bold or envelope-pushing—it’s just boring.
So despite that star power The Hustle is using to draw us into their scheme, and that delightful ditty of an old school score, and those gorgeous gowns and sunglasses (ugh, that wardrobe!), it never pulls off the heist.