Case Study 5: The Hustle (2019)

The Hustle (2019) directed by Chris Addison is a comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. The film is a female centered adaptation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) as it follows Penny Rust (Wilson) through her escapades as a con artist and her friendship with wealthy, British con artist Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway). The two women compete to scam $500,000 from innocent looking ‘internet millionaire’ Thomas Westerburg, who eventually turns out to be a con artist himself.

Through this commentary I will explore how these two femme fatales present female criminality as they both attempt to use lies and seduction to manipulate men. There appears to be a duality to both their characters. On one level there is their ‘normal’ crime persona as female scam artists; then there are the personas they put on in order to manipulate men. Specifically, these fake personas involve exploiting certain aspects of femininity that they know will entice men. For this reason, Messerschmidt’s situated action theory is apt for exploring these characters because the women commit crime as a way to construct a specific form of femininity. Not only do they deliberately construct a specific form of femininity that entices men, through their crime, they also enact a form of independent, resourceful, ‘badass’ femininity simply through the fact that they are female con artists, a job normally associated with men. Their gender makes them powerful criminals, and their crime makes them powerful women.

The dual nature of these women is what drives the plot of the film. They both understand certain aspects of misogynistic male behavior that they deliberately use to scam wealthy men. Penny Rust identifies that women have feelings and emotions which men exploit, so she deliberately uses that to con men out of their money. Her main scam involved ‘catfishing’ men and making them believe that her fake ‘hot’ sister was somehow in need. She convinces men to hand money over to her to help her sister. She would deliberately play on male sexual desire by saying that her sister needed a boob job, or that she was a virgin in need of rescue. Because these gullible men would be so enthralled by the picture of her attractive sister and her supposed virginity, they would foolishly do whatever they could to ‘be the hero.’ Similarly, Josephine Chesterfield understands that the men she scams would always want to ‘be the hero’ and thus she plays the character of the dumb and foolish woman in attempt to make the men believe that they are in control of her. In the first scam that we see her perform, she pretends to be a dumb American woman who has just ‘won big’ at the casino. Her stupidity and supposed vulnerability convinces a wealthy Dutch man that he can attempt to seduce her. He hands over an extremely wealthy bracelet as he tries to charm the woman who he believes to be sexy, stupid and rich. Once the bracelet is in Chesterfield’s hands, she has won. Hence, on one level, both women deliberately enact or use a form of sexualized and vulnerable femininity in order to con men.

The characters themselves also enact a form of independent, resourceful and ‘badass’ femininity through their crime. Chesterfield puts it perfectly when she asks “why are women better suited to the con than men? … No man will ever believe a woman is smarter than him.” According to situated action theory, these women assert their femininity and their gender by committing crimes that are normally associated with men. The fact that this is a female-centered adaptation of the male-centered Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) shows this clearly. This film fits perfectly within the wider context of the #MeToo movement and growing demand for more female representation in all aspects of society, including film, as it allows women to take the role of the manipulative con ‘man’ which we see in films like The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) and Catch Me if You Can (2002).

As I have established throughout my project, Messerschmidt’s situated action is a far too simple way of looking at gender and crime. Although situated action theory is useful in exploring the duality of these femme fatales, it does not help us understand what this film shows us in terms of gendered pathways. Unfortunately, this film does not delve into the backgrounds of these two women, and there is no indication that they have suffered any abuse or trauma in the past. As such, in terms of Daly’s gendered pathways approach, we can label these femme fatales as ‘other women’ because they seem to only commit crime out of a desire for money.

Although we are not provided with a full background for these women, their socio-economic status is clear. Chesterfield is a wealthy woman who been extremely successful in her career as a con artist. She owns a huge, coastal mansion in the South of France and employs a butler. She is sophisticated, intelligent and is always seen wearing expensive clothing and jewelry.  On the other hand, Rust, although she identifies that she has amassed a fortune of $500,000 through her con artistry, she is presented as less wealthy because she runs scams for relatively small amounts of money, travels around with all of her belongings in two bags and is so amazed by Chesterfield’s wealth that she asks her if they can work together. Although we could label these women as ‘other women’ we cannot say that they fit the gendered pathways approach in the way that real female criminals do because both Rust and Chesterfield have wealth and agency. It does not seem as though these women must commit crime in order to survive, but they do it instead because they are good at it and they enjoy it.

This film is a female-centered remake of the originally male-centered Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). The genders of the characters in the original film have been reversed, so that the starring roles are played by women, and the role of the seemingly vulnerable victim is a man. In the original, the vulnerable female victim who the protagonists compete over, ends up being the manipulative, more successful and wealthier con artist who ultimately cons both protagonists. In The Hustle (2019), this role is played by a man. In the end, it is ‘Thomas Westerburg’ who cons $500,000 out of each woman.  He later returns, having taken their money, to tell the women that they are good at their job and that they should work with him. Because of his position as the more successful con artist, he has the authority to legitimize the women’s criminal activity. Although this film attempts to be pro-feminist by showing that women can play roles originally reserved for men, I find it problematic that a young white man ‘steals the show’ and gets the final say. Arguably, I think the film’s attempt to show that women are capable of playing traditionally male roles, slightly backfires by having the ‘real mastermind’ of the film be a young, white man.

Ultimately, I feel as though this film glorifies female criminality. It attempts to show that women can play the roles of intelligent and manipulative con artists, just as well as men can. Although this is for a good cause, because it allows women to have central roles in films that were primarily reserved for men, it does not deal with the reality of female criminality. Its glorification of female crime allows viewers to celebrate the femme fatale’s criminal activity because of her ‘badass’ femininity, whilst also allowing them to overlook the reality of female criminality. These women use their socio-economic status and resources to commit crime because of greed and enjoyment, not because they need money to survive.


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