A con, swaddled in a swindle, shrouded in deception, surrounded by another con. That might be the best way to describe the onion-like layers of director David O. Russell's latest farcically dark dramedy, a fictionalized imagining of what might have gone on behind the scenes in the real-life Abscam scandal that resulted in seven U.S. congressmen being convicted of bribery in 1981.
Irving Rosenfeld is a man of modest ambition devoted to running his legitimate dry cleaning business in New Jersey … while schlepping counterfeit art and running a predatory local loan shark business on the side. But everything changes when he meets the smoldering Sydney Prosser at a pool party in 1978. The femme fatale is drawn to Irving's confident swagger—his considerable paunch and carefully glued-on toupee notwithstanding.
Sydney believes she and Irving can take his fraudulent loan business to the next level. And given her always-on-display feminine wiles, combined with Irving's natural flair for bilking desperate folks out of their money, that's exactly what happens. Sydney assumes the role of a British banking impresario named Lady Edith Greensly as she and Irving ramp up their con shtick a notch.
Perhaps, as it turns out, a notch or three too far, as their seriously successful sharkery soon attracts the attention of ambitious (and morally ambiguous) FBI agent Richie DeMaso, who's eager to make a name for himself in his young career. Richie cruelly throws Sydney (whom he believes really is Lady Edith Greensly) in a holding cell for three days, breaking her emotionally and manipulating Irving into an agreement to put their con skills to work for the Bureau.
Richie's terms seem straightforward: Get him four convictions, and Irving and Sydney walk.
It's not quite that simple, of course. Not by a long shot.
One potential target is Camden, N.J., mayor Carmine Polito—a beloved politician with a growing and glowing reputation for making everybody happy. But he's also the man who's recently brought gambling back to Atlantic City. And while he's not a greedy man, Carmine has big aspirations: rebuilding the Jersey Shore's decimated business climate and helping to get as many of his fellow Garden State residents get back on their feet as he can. So he's not above taking a bribe if it will help accomplish his goals—a weakness that leaves him vulnerable to the clever sting that Irving, Sydney and Richie concoct to nail him, one that involves Carmine taking money from a fake sheik who's supposedly interested in investing in the Shore.
But the best laid plans of cons and schemers sometimes go awry. And in this case, the chaos cup runneth over, spilling in just about every direction possible.
Soon the mob's involved, naturally wanting its fair share. Then there's the seriously complicating fact that Irving's frustrated wife—he's married to an emotionally unhinged loon named Rosalyn—falls in love with one of said mobsters and starts blabbing all sorts of stuff Irving certainly doesn't want them to know about. Then come the bribes to congressmen and senators.
Oh, and Sydney (who's furious that Irving won't just leave Rosalyn) has started flirting mightily with Richie, who's only too happy to return the favor. But is she really in love with him? Is he with her? Or is it all just another layer in the elaborate con perpetrated by one shyster upon another in the strangely immoral morality tale that is American Hustle?
At one point, Irving suggests that there's no real black and white in the world, only shades of gray as desperate people make all manner of compromises in order to survive. That's the murky narrative space American Hustle inhabits, but Russell attempts to explore it in a way that forces audiences to confront (and not just accept or excuse) the ethical and moral questions lurking there.
Mayor Carmine Polito, for instance, is willing to do illegal things in order to help people. He wants his little spot on the Jersey Shore to be a better place, even if he has to dirty up his own house to do it. And while Richie is technically following the letter of the law in his elaborate scheme to trap Carmine, he's depicted as nastily narcissistic in his attempt to turn the takedown into a personal career victory.
Thus, Russell invites audiences to wrestle with the question of which is worse: a man who does the wrong things to help others or a man who does the "right" things to help himself.
Irving's struggle with his role in the whole affair illuminates the difficulty of navigating this kind of landscape. And he says of his participation in the plot that leads to Carmine's arrest, "The loss of his friendship would haunt me the rest of my life."
Irving shows a great deal of dedication to his wife's son, a little boy named Danny (whom he has adopted). [Spoiler Warning] When Rosalyn decides she wants a divorce, Irving and Sydney renounce their fraudulent past and open up a legitimate art gallery, living together, it would seem, happily ever after as a traditional family and raising Danny as their own.
Throughout this meandering ethical exploration, the film suggests that desperation causes people to do things they may regret, to make bad decisions that ultimately destroy them. At the core of those decisions, we're told, is the desire that every person has simply to be loved and accepted for who they are. At one point, for instance, Rosalyn sobbingly tells her husband, "All I wanted you to do was love me." She says it explicitly, but it's implied that the other characters are also driven (often in the wrong direction) by a similar desire for love.
Irving tells Carmine, "I believe you should treat people the way you want to be treated. Didn't Jesus say that?" Someone suggests that a matter is "between you and God," while another person quips, "Who made you God and judge?" Richie's mother says a prayer before dinner. Irving wears a Star of David pendant, Richie a cross.
A brief sexual encounter shared by Sydney and Irving has them getting into bed together and includes a flash of breast nudity. Sydney's also involved in several other steamy scenes, with first Irving, then Richie, which involving kissing, moaning, and more flashes of her bare thighs and backside as her dresses repeatedly get hiked up. Richie briefly gropes one of her (somewhat covered) breasts as they dance in a club. (He is more than willing to abandon his fiancée to be with Sydney.)
Rosalyn tells Irving that sex is one of the only things that keeps them together, then (while wearing clingy lingerie) invites him to bed. Rosalyn is aware that Irving has an ongoing sexual relationship with Sydney, and several times Rosalyn dubs the other woman a "whore." After a huge argument with Sydney, Rosalyn inexplicably and unexpectedly ends it by kissing the other woman on the mouth. Sydney works for Cosmopolitan magazine at one point, and she's asked to write a story about oral sex.
Sydney has a penchant for wearing extraordinarily revealing clothes that barely cover her. Other women, notably Rosalyn, wear tight, revealing outfits as well. A scene at a swimming pool features women in bikinis.
We see a flashback image of a mobster shooting someone. Richie brutally clocks his supervisor with a phone, bloodying the man's face. Sydney hits Richie with a glass-framed painting, breaking it and cutting his face. Carmine repeatedly pummels Irving after the man tells him he's been the target of an FBI sting.
Crude or Profane Language
North of 110 f-words, at least two of which are paired with "mother." About 35 s-words. God's named is misused 20 or so times, five times with "d‑‑n." Jesus name is taken in vain five or six times. Six or seven uses of various slang references to the male anatomy are used (including one "c‑‑‑s‑‑‑‑‑"). We hear a handful of uses each of "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "p‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine and beer are consumed throughout, often alongside cigarettes or cigars. Rosalyn gets falling-down drunk in a restaurant, plunging out of the booth and onto the floor. (She insists she's not as drunk as she obviously is.) We hear that Rosalyn drinks alone at home. Sydney is shown smoking a joint, and she's clearly using it to try to calm her anxiety. Irving takes prescription meds for a heart condition. Richie takes an unnamed pill.
Other Negative Elements
We see most of Sydney's bare leg and thigh as she sits on a toilet. Rosalyn puts a metal tray in a microwave, triggering a kitchen fire.
Early on, a voiceover from Irving asks, "Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew that your choices were bad?"
That question frames David O. Russell's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook. And in unpacking it, he suggests, in his own elliptical (and profanity-strewn) way, that maybe some of the bad guys aren't as bad as we think, and maybe some of the good guys aren't as good as they seem. Further, these characters' struggles and bad choices also point us to the idea that anyone, given enough desperation, might bend the rules a bit if survival is what's at stake.
In framing the story this way, interestingly, Russell never justifies his sleazy, desperate characters' selfish, unethical and illegal choices. Mostly he just wants us to understand (and perhaps sympathize with) how they got to that perilous point in the first place.
That's how American Hustle manages to offer a kind of moral framework—built upon and illustrated by all kinds of immorality. It's a framework riveted in place by the belief that love, acceptance and taking care of people can only be good things, and that you can journey in the opposite direction for only so long before things catch up with you in bad, destructive ways.