American Hustle never lets you forget what it’s about: bullshit. That’s in part because the film’s cast of polyester-and-sunglasses-decked crooks and cops don't ever stop talking about it. "Bullshit" is their favorite word, thrown about in the movie's many loud, semi-comic verbal blowups—“the real bullshit is your bullshit,” one character screams, characteristically.
But in life and in American Hustle, not all bullshit is equal. Director/writer David O. Russell has called his '70s-set epic the third installment of a trilogy (starting with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) about people trying to reinvent themselves. From the opening shot—Christian Bale with a potbelly, carefully arranging his comb-over in a suite at the Plaza Hotel—it’s clear that in this case, we’re talking about reinvention as an act of deception. But the film suggests that there's worthwhile deception and there's destructive deception, and the difference generally comes down to motivation.
In Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), we have one kind of bullshit. He grew up smashing windows to help his dad, a glass-pane salesman, find clients. Now he’s working, legally and not, to provide for his estranged wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and son. Then he meets Sydney (Amy Adams), a stripper who shares his interest in Duke Ellington. When they go into business together as shady loan agents, it’s in hopes of a better, more secure life. Well, not just that—Sydney affects a posh British accent, Irving falls in love with her ruthlessness, and the two clearly get a rush out of their cons. But still, it’s business.
Until one day, it isn’t. Their racket catches the attention of Richie DiMaso, Bradley Cooper’s hyperactive, ringleted prima donna of an FBI agent. Irving and Sydney can escape prosecution, Richie says, if they work with him to entrap four criminals. So began the real-life Abscam affair, where reformed fraudsters and the cops used a fake Arab sheikh to offer bribes to corrupt politicos. More relevantly, so begins Richie’s education in the arts of swindling. He, too, gets a rush out of lying, but he doesn’t have a conman’s soul. When he bullshits, it's for a career boost, a self-esteem jolt, and maybe to catch a break that’ll let him dump that vanilla fiancée he has back at home.
At the movie's heart lies the push and pull between Richie—who continually craves bigger busts and then botches the execution—and Irving, who preaches caution and wants to build each operation “from the feet up.” Richie’s having fun, Irving’s scared for his life, and Sydney seems to be playing both sides. She hustles better than anyone else: seducing (but not sleeping with) Richie to ensure his loyalty, freezing out Irving to ensure both of their safety, and wielding the truth about her double identity like a weapon.