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Film: American Hustle

A 2013 feature film directed by David O Russell and starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence. It's loosely based on the real life "ABSCAM" operation run by the FBI in the late 1970s and early 1980s, although the film openly acknowledges that it's heavily fictionalized.

The plot revolves around Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a brilliant small-time con-artist who, with his lover Sydney Presser (Adams) posing as a well-connected British aristocrat, runs a successful fraudulent loans operation out of a chain of dry-cleaners. The good times are brought to a rapid halt, however, when they're busted by ambitious FBI agent Rich DiMaso (Cooper), who uses the threat of jail time to force them into working for him as part of a sting operation to expose local corruption in New Jersey, beginning with Carmine Polito (Renner), the idealistic mayor of Camden. DiMaso soon sets his sights on higher targets, however, and there's also Rosenfeld's highly unstable wife Rosalyn (Lawrence), whose suspicions about her husband's extra-marital activities put everyone at risk.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations but went home empty-handed, becoming the third nominated film with no wins and tied with Gangs of New York and True Grit for second place among the biggest losers in Academy history. It is also the third Oscar-nominated film where all of four acting categories didn't win any since My Man Godfrey in 1936 and Sunset Boulevard in 1950. (It did score big at the box office, however, taking in just over $150 million domestically and a further $101 million elsewhere.)

Not to be confused with a 2007 R-rated comedy film starring Kat Williams.


Tropes include:

  • Absolute Cleavage: Sydney is dressed like this in multiple scenes.
    • Amy Adams's dress at the 2014 Golden Globes also had a plunging neckline, leading to some jokes that she had "stayed in-character."
  • Ambiguously Brown: In-universe, the FBI use a Hispanic agent as their Arab sheikh. Irving ridicules the idea.
  • American Title: Subversive variety, given that the central characters are crooks and the plot involves ABSCAM.
  • Arc Words:
    • "People believe what they want to believe."
    • "From the feet up."
  • Bad Liar: Richie didn't exactly do a bang-up job of convincing Sydney that he did not, in fact, have a fiancée. And any time it falls on him to sell the con, he either blows it or only just covers himself.
  • Berserk Button: Subverted. Despite the warnings to not mess with Irving's hair, Richie does it anyway... and Irving visibly restrains himself from punching Richie's lights out, since they've got a con to pull.
  • Break the Haughty: The scene revealing The Con Within A Con does this to Richie. As the conmen calmly explain how they played him, he starts off angry and gets more subdued as he realises how thoroughly screwed he is. When Irving (who had always argued they should be keeping the con small) criticises him for only going for the soft targets instead of the real money men, his response is an almost whimpered "That's who I wanted to go for!"
  • Briefcase Full of Money: What else do you use for a bribery sting?
  • Butt Monkey: Richie's boss Thorsen, a rather meek and mild-natured man who receives little-to-no respect from Richie. Over the course of the movie, Richie progresses from mild insubordination towards Thorsen to obnoxious demands to violent threats to beating Thorsen up with a telephone to holding him at gunpoint. Richie then manages to completely avoid any kind of punishment for the latter by charming Thorsen's boss into supporting his plan, and then proceeds to cruelly bully and humiliate Thorsen at the celebration when it looks like Richie's pretty much brought down the entire Mob. And worse, Thorsen never even gets to complete an anecdote about ice-fishing with his brother. Becomes The Dog Bites Back, however, when it becomes clear that Richie's overreached and fucked up in the process, and Thorsen — with a certain amount of satisfaction — informs Richie that he's off the case.
  • The Con: The whole plot of the film is an examination of this trope.
    • The Con Within A Con: Irving and Sydney's exit strategy. They know Richie's grand plan to nab not only the corrupt politicians, but also high-ranking mafia man Victor Tellegio, will ultimately lead to their deaths as they are the only viable targets the mafia can punish. So they con Richie into thinking he wired cash to Tellegio when he really wired it to them so that they can use it to buy their immunity from prosecution and safety from the mafia.
  • Conmen Hate Guns: It's notable that Irv only gets his never-before-seen pistol out of storage when things have gone way too far. Still, it's clearly something he'd foreseen might one day be a possibility.
  • Dramatization: The film is based on the real life ABSCAM FBI operation and the participation of con artist, Mel Weinberg (the man Bale's character is based on), in the operation.
  • Corrupt Politician: Averted with Mayor Polito. He turns out to be a Nice Guy and good family man who genuinely cared for his constituents and the state of New Jersey. He only got involved in order to help his community and not for personal enrichment. Irving admits at the end that even the less-high-minded politicians caught in the sting were on a spectrum, some being almost as clean as Polito and others dirty as sin.
  • Death Glare: Irving gives one to Richie after Richie messes up his painfully crafted combover.
  • The Ditz: Rosalyn is a bit more of realistic version of this trope.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene, which details the build-up to the first attempt to entrap Mayor Polito in accepting a bribe, succinctly reveals quite a bit about the four main characters:
    • We first see Irving Rosenfeld carefully and methodically preparing his comb-over and taking Richie to task for some holes in his plan, clearly establishing that he is methodical, details-orientated, and cautious, and that disguising who he is is a central part of his identity;
    • Sydney admits to an intimate (although not sexual) moment with Richie, but makes a point of rebuking Richie and gently fixing Irving's comb-over when Richie deliberately messes it up, suggesting that she is playing both men against the other but genuinely cares for Irving;
    • Richie gets into an argument with Irving, pulls rank, deliberately messes up his hair, and is over-eager when offering the bribe to Polito, nearly ruining the whole operation — he's impulsive, hot-headed, throws his weight around and is all-up a bit of a jerk;
    • Polito gets suspicious when Richie offers the bribe, angrily rejects it and storms out, thus making it clear that he's not simply a Corrupt Politician but is someone with genuine integrity and decency.
  • Eye Scream:
    • Richie hitting his boss with a telephone leaves the latter with a bandage over one eye.
    • Richie's eye gets a little scratch when Sydney hits him in the head with a framed picture.
  • Face-Heel Turn: Richie goes from overzealous to greedy and crosses the moral event horizon in his treatment of Sydney at one point.
  • Fauxreigner:
    • Sydney often speaks with a British accent as "Edith Greensly".
    • A Mexican FBI agent impersonates an Arab sheik.
  • Foil: Richie for Irving. Irving is a criminal, Richie's FBI. Irving, despite his domestic troubles, cares deeply for his family's well-being. Richie easily ignores his fiancée. Irving is cautious and focused on keeping cons small; Richie keeps going for bigger and bigger scams. And, most telling, Irving fell for Sydney based on shared interests; Richie seeks only sexual connection with her.
  • Foreshadowing: Thorsen's ice fishing story. Richie cuts his boss off mid-story and assumes that the moral of the story is that his brother being too determined to caught fish, falls in the ice and dies. While Thorsen makes it clear Richie is wrong, it ultimately ends up being his faith. Determined to make a huge bust and get famous, Richie ends up drowning in his own scheme.
  • Gambit Pileup
  • Going Fur a Swim: Several of the girls, including Sydney, at the pool party at Long Island at the start of the film.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: A theme of the movie is that there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. The con-artists, although they make a living scamming the desperate, are also being taken advantage of by a larger corrupt system. The corrupt politician is genuinely idealistic and altruistic and reasons that his corrupt activities are his best way of improving the lives of the people he represents. Rosalyn may be manipulative, but she is also deeply hurt by her husband's affair with Sydney. And the FBI agent is violently unstable, hot-headed and, it's heavily implied, is addicted to cocaine. All the main characters are also cheating on their partners.
    • Even the mobsters are shown to be Affably Evil at most — their boss, Victor Tillegio, is shown to be a murderer, but is not unreasonable as a businessman, and spares Irving at the end. Tillegio's enforcer, Peter Musane, is also shown to genuinely care for Rosalyn, and their relationship appears much more functional than hers and Irving's.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Carmine's friendship helps Irving reform.
    • Also, (at least from Irving's perspective in-universe) Rosalyn does this when she agrees to divorce him and stop talking openly about his dealings. Up until that point, she had been presented as quite antagonistic.
  • Heroic BSOD: Irving gets one after coming clean to Carmine.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: Although, like pretty much everyone, she's a Composite Character, Sydney Prosser's real-life counterpart was minimally involved in her boyfriend's scams and completely uninvolved in Abscam.
  • I Need to Go Iron My Dog: Irving uses the "I need to go see a man about a dog" variant to get out of a meeting.
  • In Medias Res: The films begins just before Irving and Richie meet Polito and rewinds when it goes sour.
  • Irony: Irving describes with relish how bad it's going to look that Richie only caught two-bit corrupt politicians who didn't really do that much wrong, that he just went for the "soft targets" because "they was easier". Irving was always the one counselling that they keep the con small, not overstretch themselves, work "from the feet up". What keeps this from being plain hypocrisy is that Irv doesn't believe his own criticism, he just knows it'll look that way to the public.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The microwave is somewhat treated this way. Irving refers to it as a "science oven" as Carmine explains how it's used, saying it cooks food using science. It's pretty clear he barely has an understanding of the technology, but does believe in it. Irving and Rosalyn are skeptical, but Irving likes it because Carmine gave it to him and is upset when Rosalyn accidentally sets the thing on fire. Rosalyn also quotes a magazine article she read saying that it "sucks all the nutrients out of our food" (not that that stopped her trying to use it).
  • I Want Grandkids: Richie's mother pesters him about this at one point.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Irving is a con artist who takes advantage of desperate people and fences stolen and forged artwork and carries on an affair from his wife. He is also a great and loving father to his wife's son, to the point of not fleeing the country because he'd lose custody. He also genuinely loves and cares for his mistress.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • DiMaso manages to talk his way out of any kind of punishment for beating up his superior officer with a telephone by charming the head of the local FBI office into supporting his grand plan to bring down the corrupt congressmen and senators. It's subverted by the end of the film, however, when any credibility he has managed to acquire through his operation completely evaporates when Irving and Sydney arrange things to make it look like he's either embezzled two million dollars from the government or is an incompetent who's been conned by the very con-artists he trapped into working for him.
    • Played straight with Irving who was a career criminal since childhood. By the end of the film, he escapes jail, gets the divorce he's been seeking as well as joint custody of her son, and ends up with Sydney. However he is haunted by losing his friendship with Carmine.
    • Inverted with Mayor Polito. He only got involved in the scheme in order to help his city and state as opposed to personal enrichment. He still goes to jail at the end, although Irving and Sydney do arrange things so as to ensure that his punishment is ultimately lesser than those who were involved simply for greed.
  • The Klutz: Rosalyn. The microwave scene suggests that this is less due to clumsiness than a refusal to take seriously the consequences of the things she does; she doesn't forget not to put metal in it, she blithely sticks a metal tray in there while muttering how stupid it is that she can't put metal in it.
  • Logo Joke: The American print of the film opens with the late 70's era Columbia Pictures logo (with "A Sony Company" byline in a matching font), followed by faux-retro versions of the Atlas Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures logos (which appear on all prints).
  • Missing Trailer Scene: Carmine's spiel about his father teaching him that "All people are good and to be good to all people" is left out of the final film.
  • Misplaced-Names Poster: And how. Not only do the five stars seem to have gone overboard with the plastic surgery, Christian Bale is also the only one who hasn't apparently had a sex change thrown in.
  • Mixed Metaphor: "She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate."
  • Ms. Fanservice: Sydney.
  • Morality Pet: Carmine is this to Irving.
  • Nice Guy: Carmine Polito really is a great guy.
  • Nobody Touches the Hair: Invoked verbatim by Irving when DiMaso ridicules — then deliberately messes up — Irving's elaborate combover.
  • Noodle Incident: The ending to the ice fishing story. Richie keeps interrupting Stoddard, dismissing him by claiming to know what's the end of the story, and straight up ignoring him by the end. Word of God says it's about his brother taking a shit on the ice.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Carmine seems to constantly dish this out to Irving.
  • Oh Crap: Who knew the Italian gangster could speak Arabic?
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • Jennifer Lawrence's fake New Jersey accent is done fairly well, but suffers slippage during certain words and vocal sounds.
    • Amy Adams also struggles to maintain a (real-world convincing) English accent throughout her time as 'Lady Edith'.
    • Averted by the British Christian Bale, whose Long Island dialect remains steadfast throughout... even in the face of Amy Adams affecting an English accent in many of their scenes together.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Richie's boss Thorsen, who's skeptical about his subordinate's plan from the start and only reluctantly goes along with it. Later as Richie grows more and more unstable he refuses to accept his demands and Richie has to go over his head to get further authorization for the sting.
    • Irving acted in this role when Richie's sting got more and more involved. He kept reminding Richie to keep things simple and go to the smaller score (although to be fair he was also trying to get out from under Richie's thumb.) Irving was proven right when Richie's overly-complicated scheme allows him to be conned at the end.
  • Pretty in Mink: Sydney and Rosalyn each wear some full length fur coats.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Rosalyn gives a pretty brutal one to Sydney — when Sydney calls out Rosalyn for manipulating Irving and being "gross inside", Rosalyn replies that Sydney must be gross inside too, because of her con-artist lifestyle, "that's what Irving loves about us". What makes this brutal is that everything Rosalyn says is true.
  • Recruiting the Criminal: The movie revolves around FBI Agent DiMaso forcing con-artists Irving and Sydney to work for him to bring down other con artists. The con-artists eventually end up pulling one over on DiMaso himself, ruining his career in the process.
  • Running Gag: Stoddard's story about ice-fishing.
    • The Unreveal: Richie never does hear what the point of the story is.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: Carmine's intentions are completely noble and he does care about his constituents, though to get things done he often has to make back door deals. The plot of the film involves the FBI tricking him into accepting and giving bribes to get Atlantic City built, something he believes will do nothing but good for his city.
  • Spanner in the Works: Things would have been significantly less dangerous if Richie and Rosalyn had not both been rather unstable.
  • Take That Kiss: During confrontation in a bathroom, Rosalyn blasts Sydney with a Reason You Suck Speech and then kisses her on the mouth.
  • The Seventies: So very much.
    • '70s Hair: And how!
    • Disco: DiMaso dresses the part when he takes Sydney out dancing. Also, the use of "I Feel Love" during the club scene.
    • Porn Stache: At least a few guys sport these.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: After almost blowing the entire operation and getting Irving killed, Rosalyn justifies her interference with some convoluted and self-justifying nonsense about Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention and reasons that Irving's idea to get them out of this mess was, therefore, somehow her idea. By this point, having shouted at her long enough and utterly exasperated and bewildered, Irving just gives up and meekly goes along with it.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: And the movie cheerfully admits this: the very first shot of the movie is a title card casually declaring that "Some of this actually happened".
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: Minor example when Rosalyn, dismissive of the warning not to put metal in the microwave, sticks a metal tray wrapped in foil into it, promptly setting it on fire.
  • Your Cheating Heart: All over the place.

Side EffectsFilm Brain ListBehind The Candelabra
12 Years a SlaveAcademy AwardCaptain Phillips
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