When I was 15 years old, I had a pretty good thing going for myself when it came to sneaking into shows at large venues. If the tickets were expensive, if it was sold out, or if you had to be over 18 to get in, I would go to the bouncer out front and tell him that I was looking for my older brother. “He’s in there, but I can’t get in touch with him,” I would say. “We’re supposed to go home together.” I was barely five feet and scrawny, and looked more like a 9-year-old than a teenager; these qualities, along with my whiteness, almost always got me in the door. “Go find him and come right back out,” they’d say. It was an intoxicating feeling. No one got hurt, and I got to see Bright Eyes.
Soon, a guiding principle emerged through my teens and early 20s: scam as honestly as you can, and only scam up. And so I began a life of trying to not pay for things. I would get free popcorn at chain movie theaters by finding an empty container under a seat and telling the person at the concession stand that I’d accidentally spilled mine. I would wear dresses to family weddings with the tags still on and later return them to the department stores where I’d bought them. In an early job after college, I stealthily brought home two long-abandoned laptops from a company that paid us terribly and was run by a man who sexually harassed the women on staff. (I kept one and gave the other to my best friend.) I was always angling for something dumb, and it worked often enough.
I have eased off the scam in recent years (mostly), but remain Jezebel’s resident expert on the subject. So it seemed appropriate that I go see The Hustle, a movie about women who scam.
The film, I learned after watching it, is a remake of two movies I have never seen: Bedtime Story, a 1964 film starring Marlon Brando and Shirley Jones, and its 1988 remake Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The story is about two mismatched con artists, Anne Hathaway as Josephine (classy and British for some reason) and Rebel Wilson as Penny (scrappy, outwardly horny), who cross paths—first as rivals and then as grudging allies.
While the premise of my youthful small crimes spree was a very me-centric version of “capitalism is bad,” The Hustle advertises itself as a movie about getting one over on the patriarchy. (Tagline: “They’re giving dirty rotten men a run for their money.”) On its face, I agree with this: the rich should be unburdened of their wealth, ideally by expropriative and redistributive policies brought on by robust democracy, but until then informally through justice-minded grift.
The film starts out clumsily, if earnestly, on this premise, with Penny trying to get a blind date to give her a few thousand dollars to fund her fake sister’s boob job. (Her fake sister is very hot, which she uses as a weapon against shallow men.) He gives her the money and she prepares to leave, only to be confronted by the last crude sexist she pulled this on. The joke is that these men are terrible and deserve what they get, and it pretty much works even though it’s extraordinarily heavy-handed. (“There are so many other kinds of men deserving of our contempt,” I wrote in my notes.)
After evading capture, she decides to go to the French Riviera to con the many rich men there. En route, she meets Josephine, who is on to her scam and tries—in order to preserve her own scam—to send her away but fails. Soon, they are scamming together. The setups all rely on the same bad joke: Anne Hathaway, the film takes pains to tell you, is so pretty and Rebel Wilson, the film takes pains to tell you, is so not. It’s tired and gross, and makes up the bulk of the movie. Penny is constantly falling on her face, screaming about her tits, or spilling wine on herself. Josephine is always wearing a silk robe and looking pressed. While doing this, The Hustle still attempts to gesture at empowerment. “Women have feelings... men see that quality in us an exploit it,” Penny says at one point. “No man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is,” Josephine says during a con artist training montage.
The movie goes on like this for some time, until they meet a young tech developer and make him the subject of a make or break con: whoever can scam him first gets to claim the French Riviera town as exclusive territory.
But there’s a hitch: the tech man, played by someone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg and speaks like a toddler, turns out to be nice. This gives Penny pause. (Why, I wondered? He is still rich). Soon we also learn that he only has $500,000 left to his name. This, in the movie’s universe, is apparently not rich. So then the movie becomes about trying to fuck Mark Zuckerberg instead of stealing his money. All of this recalculation—from stealing to fucking—turns out to have been beside the point because Mark Zuckerberg was actually conning them. Who cares, honestly.
Soon, Penny and Mark Zuckerberg are dating, and Josephine is still doing a bad British accent. And they are all scamming together. The pretext—that wealthy men deserve to be punished for their wealth and hubris—was dropped midway into the film, and was fully abandoned by its end.
It’s part of a lazy genre of empowerment movies that actually re-inscribe the things they’re supposedly attacking (how many fat jokes can you pack into a “feminist” comedy, I wonder?), which makes all of this feel kind of meta. The Hustle, in the end, is a con on anyone who thought they were about to watch a modestly subversive feminist critique of capitalism. I don’t recommend you see it, but I don’t know your life. If you do go, try out my old popcorn trick. Tell me if it still works.