The Princet on philosopher Harry Frankfurt begins his award-winning book On Bullshit with a judgment as playful as it is serious: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” And even though each of us produces our own share of it, most of us are over-confident in our abilities to recognize the BS of others, so we often glaze over what’s really going on: “We have no theory.” And that leaves us blind.
In a way, David O. Russell’s American Hustle is the movie version of Frankfurt’s thesis, jam-packed with its own hilariously serious theory of bullshit, which unfolds in the late 70’s in the thicket of scam artistry, money fraud, and the FBI’s attempt to bust mafia bosses and corrupt politicians with the assistance of the best scammers of them all: Irving Rosenfelt (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).
American Hustle begins with Irving staring at himself in the mirror and meticulously gluing together his massive comb-over. The scene could hardly be more appropriate: the balding man looks at himself intently for the sake of masking his baldness in order to reinvent his appearance, however ridiculously. In a sense, the characters in American Hustle never stop “combing-over” – lying and conning – until the credits roll, from Irving’s gallery of forged art, to Sydney’s bogus English pedigree, to the Mexican handyman’s posing as a millionaire sheik, to twists of untruth too good to give away.
In the world of American Hustle, if we want to understand the origins of our drive to scam, we need to get a realistic picture of human nature. According to Irving, “The key to people is what they believe is what they want to believe.” We don’t seek the truth but our desires. And thus, “This is the f****** art: to become someone people can pin their beliefs on.” In other words, “we con ourselves” and leave out “the ugly truth” as our preferred method of coping with reality, gaining power, and insuring our survival.
Straight from the gate, American Hustle playfully asks the hard question: Is there any ‘there’- there – anything real and worthwhile? Or is it all smoke and mirrors – all self-seeking, surivalistic bullshitting as our hair falls out and we get closer to death? In one of the most emotionally raw moments of the film, Sydney screams at Irving, “We are bullshit! You are bullshit! I never thought you were conning me!” And later on, once Sydney has successfully seduced the FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they repeatedly confess to one another, “No more shit! I’m ready for real!” But, of course, that was a lie: they weren’t “ready for real,” and the hustle continued.
What does it mean to be “ready for real,” and would that “real” be any good? American Hustle shows the complexity of this question. On the one hand, given the brokenness of both Irving’s and Sydney’s upbringings, it would seem like life’s just too insecure and painful not to bullshit. But, on the other hand, this same brokenness is seemingly too heavy to bear, knowing that everything’s all just made up and good for nothing. Where does the truth lie, if there is any?
With brilliant irony, American Hustle is a refreshingly bullshit-free look at our basic drives and desires as broken people in a broken society. Without moralizing, the movie raises the mirror to the ways that all of us “comb-over” the facts of our lives – that we’re dying and that a life of survival is meaningless without the sacrifices of love.
This one is surely a contender for Best Picture.