Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale star in a scene from the movie "American Hustle." (CNS photo/Sony)
MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O (morally offensive)
Walking through an art gallery,
con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) points out a Rembrandt painting to FBI
agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and proudly declares that it is fake.
“That’s impossible,” Richie insists.
“People believe what they want to believe,” Rosenfeld retorts. “The guy who
made this was so good that it’s real to everybody. Now who’s the master: the
painter or the forger?” It’s a stupid question; the painter is the master.
However, amid the moral confusion of the 1970s depicted in American Hustle, in which both the keepers of the law and the
lawless lie for a living, it seems reasonable.
American Hustle is an immensely entertaining and slick film that tries to
show the life of forgery as glamorous and mostly harmless, even if a bit
unseemly. However, like Irving’s terrible hairpiece, it cannot conceal the
madness these characters have created. It’s a cautionary tale without much
As a child, when his family’s glass business was suffering, young Irving
took it upon himself to deliberately break windows all over town. Naturally,
profit margins increased. Now in his 40s, he has both a successful string of
dry cleaners and a secret enterprise dealing in fake art and bad loans. At a
friend’s pool party, he meets the beautiful, mysterious, and exciting
stripper/writer Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams); she is entranced by his double life
and enthusiastically becomes his mistress/business partner.
Despite their considerable “skills,” they are eventually caught red handed
by Richie who, recognizing their talent, enlists them in bringing down
political corruption. The setup involves trapping a popular New Jersey mayor
and several congressmen in a fake scheme involving large amounts of hush money
from a Sheikh. Layer upon layer of crimes are uncovered, covered up, and
uncovered again as the mob begins to get in on the deal (there is a terrific
cameo by Robert de Niro). Soon, Richie falls in love with Sydney while Irving’s
young, uncontrollable wife Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence) begins to spill the
It’s a nightmare with no end in sight as everyone is conning anyone with
everything to lose.
Truth is essential because it allows humans to categorize the world
properly. Without knowing the truth, it is impossible to make wise choices.
Lies create chaos, distrust, and suffering. To a fairly limited degree,
director David O. Russell shows how Irving’s deceptions have come back to haunt
him and those he loves, but he also admires the con man for the cunning way he
slips out of trouble time and time again. Rosenfeld justifies this behavior by
claiming that everyone hustles to survive, but hustling involves not just lying
but using people for selfish means. He justifies this to by claiming he only
hustles bad people. But haven’t “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of
One of the most painful elements of the film is the lack of guilt and
penance. Irving’s affair with Sydney is a good example. He clearly prefers her
company to that of his wife yet tries also to keep a somewhat sane relationship
with Roselyn for the sake of their son. Both women are necessary to make his
deals work: Sydney cozies up to DiMaso and Roselyn charms the mayor’s wife and
a mobster from Miami. Despite this cheating and quasi-pimping, he somehow
manages to come out on good terms with both by the end. People are hurt, but it’s
only temporary; even the mob gets a way out. It’s a relief of sorts that
everyone is okay, but it is unrealistic and distressing to see that such
enormous fabrications have few repercussions.
Behind all this mess, Hustle is essentially an ensemble of desperate
characters who aren’t comfortable in their own skins. Everyone in the film
wants to be someone other and more than they really are. Irving loves business
and making deals but cannot find the kind of high rolling he desires in a small
Jersey town. Sydney wants style, glamour, exciting personas, and gaining the
admiration of others, even if that means working as a stripper. Both enter the
immoral life of hustling to fulfill these dreams and shine in their new roles,
but it is a city in a dumpster, not on a hill. Dreams pursued with wrong ends
and immoral means will turn into nightmares.
The original title of this film was American
, which is probably more accurate. Not only does everyone lie, they
spin elaborate falsehoods and personalities so fantastical it bewilders others
into believing them. In reality, this never works. Eventually the rain comes,
and the house of sand comes a-tumbling down. “The truth will set you free”;
this simple phrase could have saved everyone a mountain of heartache. And if
you need any more proof of the film’s duplicity, ask yourself: what male would
not be faithful to Jennifer Lawrence? Seriously.