A Cautionary Tale Without Much Caution

A review of American Hustle

MPAA Rating, R

USCCB Rating, O (morally offensive)

Reel Rating,    

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 caution.

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 beans.

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 God”?

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 Bullsh*t, 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.

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About Nick Olszyk 208 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".