The intent of “The Hustle” is clear: Craft a comedy around two grifters who couldn’t be more different from one another and watch the laughs flow.
Given one of the grifters is Rebel Wilson as a mistress of vulgarity, and the other Academy Award-winner ("Les Misérables") Anne Hathaway, that should be the minimal expectation.
But when the script-by-committee takes the story in more directions than can be counted, those laughs tend to get lost in the process.
That problem plagues this effort directed by Chris Addison, best known for helming episodes of the HBO series “Veep,” who is making his feature film debut. Addison attempts to take what’s given him and create a cosmopolitan, breezy comedy about life as a grifter, but instead comes up with a leaden film where many will be tempted to pull out their phones to check the time.
The jokes mostly fall flat, and Addison directs Hathaway to a performance that’s quasi-over the top, as she goes all in on her role as Josephine, an international woman of mystery. Much of her role feels inauthentic, even when she’s not playing the part of a con artist.
As for Wilson, we’ve seen her do the fish-out-of-water bit in several films by now. There’s little new here as she mines familiar moves and attitudes to create her character.
Penny’s the type to force her way into a situation where profit is involved, and the scenario in this case is Josephine’s life. Recognizing the potential in one another’s skills, they agree to collaborate and they are hugely successful. Josephine, a millionaire, grooms Penny for higher-stakes targets.
However, she won’t pay out until she deems Penny “ready,” a convenient prospect. This ticks the Aussie off and she goes off on her own, grifting in an area Josephine views her territory. Eventually, they set a competition where the loser has to leave. The bet: Whoever can scam Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp), a babyface tech genius, gets to stay.
Penny crafts an elaborate scam that Josephine latches onto, and the duo find themselves competing while working together with Thomas as the prey.
“The Hustle” works in a few moments, but unfortunately, they are few. Given the high-powered leads, that’s a waste, but Sharp is a minor salvation as he steals nearly every scene he inhabits.
In the post-“Avengers: Endgame” weeks, it feels as if releases are being sacrificed until the superhero film’s momentum slows. Say hello to much of the month of May. Hopefully the third "John Wick" can offer a respite next week.
George Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.