‘American Hustle’ Nails The Cons We Play On Other People–And Ourselves

CREDIT: Annapurna Pictures

This post discusses the plot of American Hustle in some detail.

“I want to face you like a man because I want to be real now,” Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) towards the end of American Hustle, David O. Russell’s movie about Abscam, the infamous FBI sting operation that began in 1978, and that employed a real con artist, who is the basis for Rosenfeld’s character. The movie, which is somewhat less than the sum of its garishly colorful, extravagantly toupeed, and flashily-scored parts, is ostensibly about political corruption. But American Hustle is more effective as an exploration of personal insecurity, and the extent to which people value the relationships they’ve built on lies versus the stability of the truth, even if it’s unpleasant.

There is a very, very great deal going on in American Hustle–the size of its cast feels somewhat more like an HBO drama than a two-hour movie–but for me, the most effective parts of the story focused on Irving’s relationships with two women and one man.

The first woman is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a stripper determined to have more in her life. “There’s a boldness to it. But where would that boldness take me?” she muses of what it’s like to be on stage. Her first stop is Cosmopolitan, where she lands a job when her interviewer asks her “Our cover story is on cunnilingus. Do you have thoughts on that?” and she gives the apparently correct answer of “I like it.” For reasons that are never even hinted at, this isn’t enough for Sydney, and she falls for Irving when, after meeting him at a pool party, he offers her apparently cast-off clothes left behind by patrons at his dry-cleaning business (did Cosmo not have a fashion closet). If the specific reasons that Sydney is attracted to Irving and willing to dump her life to join him in a variety of cons are skipped over as quickly as a polyester print, the fun that Irving and Sydney have together retroactively makes their liaison make some sense.

Irving likes that Sydney sees to the heart of things, including him, and doesn’t seem turned off when what she finds there is ugly. “Fucking Jimmy Carter. Fucking Nixon, really, with the war and the deficit and all that shit,” Sydney muses at one point, and Irving confesses to us that “I should never tell a woman the truth. But she’s so smart. She’s different.” And for Sydney, who thinks she wants the conventional trappings of a successful life, Irving provides a series of little adrenaline highs, opportunities for Sydney to pretend to be an English Lady and to seduce Irving’s marks for him, encounters that provide an endless series of affirmations. When they two of them are busted by a man who turns out to FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), Sydney tries to make him feel better by promising “We can make it an adventure like we make everything, all right?”

The problem for Irving and Sydney, though, is that while Irving’s feelings for Sydney are sincere, the shape of their relationship is what Steve Martin in Shopgirl describes as “a temporary and poorly constructed heaven.” Their relationship is, in fact, an affair. After their cons and liaisons, Irving goes home to his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who Irving describes as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”

Rosalyn is a Real Housewife by way of the Feminine Mystique, a woman who stays at home all day cleaning to Paul McCartney and basking in the adoration of her son, who Irving has adopted, and seems to be going slowly mad under the influence of solvents and boredom. Allergic to anything that might resemble uncomfortable feelings, Roslyn has developed an astonishing capacity to lie, turning domestic recklessness into wild fiction. When she ignores Irving’s injunction not to put metal in the microwave he’s been given as a gift by Polito, one of the politicians he is scamming, Rosalyn turns even the fire she starts into evidence of her own good housekeeping. “Bringing something into our house that’s going to take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me,” she declares. When her gift for telling the truth only in the most inconvenient circumstances puts Irving in danger from the mob, Rosalyn insists that she was only doing it to inspire him. “I have alway said, Irving, that you were very, very hard to motivate properly,” she says with an air of incredible authority.

One of those inconvenient circumstances arises when Rosalyn and Sydney end up at the same party. It was one thing for each to deny the other when they were out of each others’ lines of sight. But being in the same room together destroys both of their illusions. In a nasty confrontation, Sydney tries to convince Rosalyn that Irving has chosen her, and will choose her in the long term, because of Rosalyn’s failings. But it’s Rosalyn who wins the fight with an emotional suicide bombing. “Maybe we’re both gross inside. Maybe that’s what he loves about us. At least he’s consistent,” she tells Sydney.

Irving may be conning both women, but his real attraction is to Carmine. It’s not that Irving is sexually attracted to the young mayor, but he does like the way that Carmine makes him feel. Carmine is a terrific mark for a bribery sting because he’s an idealist, a rising political star who convinced New Jersey’s legislature to re-legalize gambling, and who dreams of rebuilding Atlantic City as an engine of jobs, particularly for his poor, non-white constituents. Initially, he walks away from an attempt to pass him a briefcase full of cash, only for Irving to talk him back into the scheme, convincing him that this is the way business is done. And by convincing himself that he’s helping Carmine to do good, Irving begins to feel like he’s contributing to something better than simply helping the FBI sting politicians, a pursuit that he sees as ignoble. “People just got over Watergate and Vietnam, and you’re going to shit all over politicians again?” Irving complains to Richie when Richie announces that he wants to target not just fraudsters, but politicians out to enrich themselves.

Some of the movie’s finest scenes involve Irving simply watching Carmine in action. “He’s going to get this community, he’s going to get this state back to where it belongs,” Carmine lionizes Irving at a party. Carmine’s faith in the sheik is so deep that he’s eager to prove himself to his fictional benefactor. “I really want him to see how good this will be for the community,” Carmine tells Irving, asking him to arrange for the sheik to visit Camden. When Carmine takes the stage at a party for the sheik (played by Michael Peña, simultaneously cheeky and dead-pan), Irving’s self-deception lifts for a moment, miserable at the gap between the facade Carmine believes in, and the reality of what he’s setting the man up for.

But his own investment in the fakery that is their friendship leads Irving to seize on small details and to invest enormous significance in them. When Carmine buys Irving a microwave, at that time, new technology, Irving is immensely touched. “You specifically bought this science oven for me?” he wants to know. “Yeah. For my new friend,” Carmine tells him. When Rosalyn wrecks the microwave by putting a tinfoil-wrapped dish in it, lighting the machine on fire, she tells Irving they can simply buy another one. “I don’t want another one!” her husband wails. “I want the one that Carmine bought me!”

And when the facade is torn down, as it inevitably must be–Irving and Carmine met, after all, when Irving was trying to entrap him in a sting–Irving clings to the few beams and scraps of wallpaper left hanging to convince himself that their relationship is salvageable. “I want to face you like a man because I want to be real now,” Irving tells Carmine when he comes to his house, convinced that warning him so he can avoid the humiliation of being surprised when he’s arrested will undo the original sin of their meeting. Carmine is unconvinced. “I was gone!” Carmine tells him, not letting Irving forget the moment when their relationship began. “I was gone, I left!”

“I never had a friend like you before,” Irving protests weakly. But the whole point of American Hustle is that Irving never had a friend like Carmine at all.