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" It’s lonely being a cannibal — tough making friends "
— Jeffrey Jones, Ravenous

MRQE Top Critic

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Still gripping and suspenseful, more than 70 years after its initial release —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

Paul Muni is a Fugitive

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Considering it’s a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), which was in turn a remake of Bedtime Story (1964), The Hustle starts off feeling mighty fresh and modern.

Dirty Rotten Women

Keeping abreast of the latest scams
Keeping abreast of the latest scams

That beginning fully takes advantage of the 31 years that separates it from the Michael Caine / Steve Martin comedy which has somehow managed by sheer force of time to attain “classic” status subsequent to its rather lackluster theatrical release and eventual run as a Broadway stage show.

The action begins with a play on catfishing, a whole new level of con artistry that wasn’t possible in those pre-smartphone, pre-web, pre-social media days. Ah. Scamtech. Lovely.

Anyway, a young woman named Madison presents herself as a hot, busty blonde bombshell on a dating site. She’s swiped right by a bare-chested male playboy. They’re to meet at a bar, but the girl who shows up looks nothing like the woman the shallow, egotistical non-starter of a man was expecting. Instead, she looks a lot like Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect). Not that there’s anything wrong with Wilson, she’s just not everybody’s cup of tea — and she’s certainly not the svelte hottie in the photo.

It’s a setup for one of The Hustle’s best lines, a statement about online dating in 2019: It’s hard to tell if someone’s as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside.

Madison works the situation, overcoming the (expected) disappointment of her male target and spinning the situation to rope in a fictional sister for whom she’s acting as a stand-in. In short, her sister needs a boob job. And the mark, madly in love with the online persona he’s never, ever met, is at the ready to fork over $500 for the cause.

It’s a brisk, smart pre-credits sequence that sets the tone for this remake: it’s the ladies’ turn to con the men and it follows on the (high) heels of the women-driven franchise reboots Ocean’s Eight and the 2016 version of Ghostbusters.

The Jackal v. Medusa

Okay. It’s a great start, but The Hustle doesn’t manage to keep the pace for the entire run. By the end, things start to peter out as the bulk of the movie follows its ’80s progenitor a little too closely, failing to add a new element of surprise that would’ve helped put it over the top.

The action once again takes place in the French Riviera’s Beaumont sur Mar. Rebel Wilson’s Penny Rust takes on the Steve Martin role as the con in training while Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) is Josephine Chesterfield, the seasoned resident expert in the art of the scam previously played by Michael Caine.

Beyond the gender bending, what’s missing is a whole new twist to replace the Glenne Headly storyline, now gender-swapped with Thomas (Alex Sharp, How to Talk to Girls at Parties), a male tech wizard presumed to be independently wealthy.

That’s how the freshness of the opening ultimately devolves into the staleness of the familiar.

There are the requisite tweaks to the material, but it’s nearly a 1:1 gag swap. Steve Martin’s potty at the dinner table scene as the dimwitted Ruprecht is replaced with Rebel Wilson’s sister version sporting a locked iron chastity belt in urgent need of removal.

Sure. It’s funny and it’s modestly fun, but it’s also a little too safe for its own good. Think of it as the “her” companion piece to the “his” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. While he’s a wheelchair-bound veteran wounded in the war of love, she’s a blind girl still searching for love. His Ruprecht con caricature is transformed into her bizarrely medieval low-functioning princess locked away in a dungeon. (And don’t turn your back on her.)

And so it goes. Nearly gag for gag — along with a couple new gems as Wilson gets to spout out a persona-friendly bit about her salad intolerance and one notably funny new joke about releasing the peasants for some skeet shooting practice, subsequently shooting down one of her own clique that’s in on the con. As another plus, Thomas’ interest in Penny comes across as a bit more sincere and hopeful than Glenne Headly’s Janet Colgate and her rather detached romance with Martin’s Freddy Benson.

Endgame

Jac Schaeffer (who’s written the upcoming Black Widow standalone feature for Marvel), takes the original material and gives it the gender refresh. It’s certainly a decent effort for an update, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a full-on upgrade. (There is another nod to the times. The $50,000 prize in the 1988 male version has been adjusted for inflation and is now a decent $500,000, but that might not be enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in the Riviera.)

With a trim 94-minute run time, making it roughly 15 minutes shorter than Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, director Chris Addison keeps things moving as he makes the leap from TV (including a baker’s dozen episodes of Veep) into his feature film directorial debut. It’s good teeth-cutting material that shows he can make the tricky leap from the shorter form TV episode to long-form features.

But, still, there’s this challenge: Rebel Wilson’s pushing 40 — and so is Seth Rogen, for that matter. Based on her character here and Seth’s role in Long Shot, it’s time for both of them to change it up a bit and look for some new stretch goals. Rebel’s great at what she does — love her or hate her, she is funny. But both Wilson and Rogen are on a crash course with the Samuel L. Jackson career path of self-caricature.