“Some of this actually happened.” So says the title card leading up to the opening of David O. Russell’s American Hustle (not to be confused with the 2007 Katt Williams movie of the same name). And, in fact, the film is based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation that took place in the late 70s and early 80s. Designed to target government officials accepting bribes on a massive scale, American Hustle takes elements from this fragment in FBI history and centers it around con artist Irving Rosenfeld (a grotesque Christian Bale), a real Long Island type.
Although Irving is married to a high-strung, manipulative woman named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, in a trashy role played to perfection), he quickly falls in love with, Sydney (Amy “Tit Showcaser” Adams), a gifted con woman with a shared love of Duke Ellington. The fact that Irving could love two women so disparate from one another is a testament to the male reproductive organ fiending for a taste of every type. His preference, though, is ultimately for Sydney. Their partnership in con artistry, unfortunately, is abruptly halted when they’re busted by small-time FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).
In exchange for Sydney’s freedom, Irving cuts a deal with Richie: Four busts of high-profile politicians and Richie will forget about the whole thing. Richie’s attraction to Sydney makes Irving feel automatically uneasy about being under his thumb. The love triangles and squares of American Hustle are perhaps a mirror of the time period, as well as Rosalyn’s whimsical kissing of Sydney after they have an argument in the bathroom.
Still, Richie’s (who also happens to have a fiancée) so-called love for Sydney can’t be matched by Irving’s desire for her. Although, in the past, David O. Russell has revealed a more cynical side (e.g. I Heart Huckabees and Flirting With Disaster) with regard to love, there is a hopeful tone throughout American Hustle that reflects the general sentiment of a nation looking forward to the end of a recession and the end of Jimmy Carter.
Even the mention of divorce, which is at first appalling to Rosalyn, eventually seems like a commonplace idea for her—yet another indication of the 70s and how comfortable people were becoming with the idea. After all, Rosalyn “just wants to be loved,” as she tells Irving so vehemently after ratting him out to one of Victor Tellegio’s (Robert DeNiro) mafia henchmen about Irving being in cahoots with the FBI. Thus, Rosalyn’s dysfunctional methods for attention all seem justified to her, for it’s all in the name of Irving’s love. It is in this way that Rosalyn is one of the most deranged, emotionally complex characters in the film—in spite of coming off as a vapid Long Island wife on the surface.
And then there’s the relationship between Richie and his superior, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K., in a deadpan role that suits him). Stoddard’s reluctance and caution in pursuing heavy-hitting politicians like Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) irritate Richie to no end, especially when Stoddard tries to tell him a story about ice fishing in Michigan as a metaphor. Even though their rapport is a subplot of the movie, Russell displays such a knack for creating interesting character dynamics that it stands out as one of the most memorable friendships apart from the one between Irving and Carmine.
Although American Hustle is a film with many messages from which to cull, it comes down to two phrases stated by Sydney and Irving: “I wanted to be anyone else but who I was” and “You con yourself just to get through life.” And there’s no better country than America to achieve both of those sentiments at an optimal level.