“What’s interesting to me is that every day is a kind of narrative—every day is a belief of how you embrace and live and enjoy your life or suffer with your life. I believe that every movie in a way is about narrative: What narrative is the character telling himself?
—David O. Russell
“People want to be conned.” So asserts Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), by way of not exactly explaining his immersion in any number of swindles and scams, financial and romantic. Count him among those “people” who want to believe in what can’t be true, a point made clear in the opening moments of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which detail the process by which he applies his hairpiece, an utterly unbelievable hairpiece that simultaneously makes his case and entirely undermines it.
It happens that Irv—inspired by the real life real-life Abscam Mel Weinberg—is preparing for a meeting at New York’s Plaza Hotel with an undercover FBI agent, Richie (Bradley Cooper), and New Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), each possessed of an equally extravagant coiffure. Between Richie and Irv sits Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), her own do both sizeable and spectacularly red. That each is playing a part is obvious, even if you hadn’t seen the pre-performance preparations or their tensions acted out. As the scene is transformed into surveillance video, the stakes of their acts become clearer and murkier: this is the Abscam scandal, April 1978, reimagined by Russell and Eric Singer to consider not only the big egos and stupid mistakes, but also how and why anyone might have believed any of it.
Irv describes his own part in basic, dire terms: “Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad?” He and Sydney are caught up in the FBI operation because Richie has an agenda and al kinds of ambition; they’re caught up too because they’re caught while running their own con, convincing eager investors to put up money for phony deals. The con is complicated by their romance, into which Richie throws a considerable wrench when he suggests that Irv—who has a wife named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) on Long Island—is using Sydney, a blow delivered while she’s locked away in a grim bedless cell for days, vulnerable at that very instant to the agent who is so plainly and cruelly using her.
How and why does she believe either man? Or does she? This is the terrific and unanswerable question posed by American Hustle, which is not only about the awkwardly intricate and emblematic fictions designated “Abscam,” rendered in the movie as the reciprocal illusions of professional con artists and politicians, federal agents and mobsters, but also about the stories they tell themselves, their self-images and self-deceptions. All the choices are bad, as Irv notes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not choices.
This much is both established and undercut at the moment of their meeting, at a pool party where she’s glorious in her bathing suit and he’s so very abjectly not. The film stages their encounter as a collision of life forces, vibrant, insistent, needy. He sees her as the beautiful object she is, but as her voiceover cuts in—recalling a similarly excellent shift in perspective in Goodfellas when Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) describes her reaction to Henry’s gun—it’s clear that wanting to believe drives her as much as everyone else in the picture. True, Irv “wasn’t in good shape and he had this comb-over that was elaborate,” but they share a love of Duke Ellington and fictions, perhaps most especially the fictions they tell each other.
Their mutual devotion is sealed in a perfect scene, as he shows of his dry cleaning store, offering her any abandoned dresses and coats she might want to have. They consummate their liaison standing inside a movie rack loaded with plastic-bagged clothing, sweeping around and over them, the sounds of the poly overwhelming and enchanting, so categorically artificial and so too-too real.
The metaphor resonates throughout American Hustle, this notion of life and love based on lies and hopes for better lives, politics, individual and collective identities. (It’s a notion lacing through much of Russell’s work, perhaps especially in the great film he made out of John Ridley’s script for Three Kings, superbly contained in Said’s query concerning the “problem with Michael Jackson.”) Irv and Sydney embody this furious dynamic, telling themselves stories about themselves and each other because they can’t imagine giving up. So too does Richie’s supervisor, the exquisitely named Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), who tells a story, or pieces of it, again and again, each time Richie comes to his office to plead for money or support for the great scam he’s running. Stoddard’s story has to do with his father and ice-fishing back when he was a kid, a story about his brother and his dad, a life long ago based on a set of beliefs no longer sustainable, in the city, in the FBI, in the 1970s.
It’s a story Richie spends a lot of time hearing but not heeding, a story whose ending he guesses at repeatedly, but never allows Stoddard to finish. Richie’s impatience indicates his lack of imagination, his inability to appreciate the particular rhythms of the telling, to understand. He cons but tells himself he’s not, he believes, earnestly and without nuance. By contrast, Sydney and Irv, do understand, in their very different but so intertwined ways, the value of stories, of lies, of cons and being conned. It’s a process, it’s a thrill, a way to survive and to trust, to make good even when the choices are bad.