Is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) a fake? His hair, an elaborate combover held together by hairspray and bravado, certainly is. His work revolves around selling forged paintings and conning people through a loan scam. But when he meets the clever and glamorous Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), his feelings couldn’t be more real.The two fall madly in love and soon go into business together, ramping up Irving’s con operation and raking in the money. The only fly in the ointment, as far as they’re concerned, is that Irving can’t bear to leave his adopted son with volatile wife Roslyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. Love and business both continue illicitly, until FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches them in the act of a scam.
Richie, ambitious and reckless, proposes to release the con artists if they help him with a scheme of his own. He wants to entrap Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a popular politician whose passion for helping people makes him less than scrupulous about where his funding comes from. As Richie sets his plan in motion, the lives and loves of all five characters become so entangled that it’s no longer clear who’s conning who.
- Did you enjoy the film, and why or why not? Which scenes or moments particularly stood out to you?
- What did you make of the four central performances from Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper? If you have seen any of their previous collaborations with David O. Russell (in The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook), how did their work here compare? How well do they work together as an ensemble?
- What did you make of the use of voiceover in the script – did it add to, or detract from the story, and why? Do you think the characters are completely honest in voiceover?How was music used in the film to set the emotional tone, and to highlight particularly important moments for the characters? How does music speak to Irving and Sydney as they bond over Duke Ellington; to Roslyn as she sings ‘Live and Let Die’; to Irving and Carmine as they do karaoke; and to Richie and Sydney as they go dancing?
‘I felt like I could finally be myself without being ashamed.’ – Irving
- Which relationships in the film are based on emotional honesty, and which are based on a ‘hustle’ of one sort or another? How does the latter keep threatening to compromise the former, and are they portrayed as mutually exclusive? In what sense might romance or friendship be viewed as a ‘hustle’, or a shared delusion?
- What are some of the key moments at which we see the characters’ true, vulnerable selves, without any ‘hustle’? How does the film treat these moments, and how did you feel about them? To what extent could you empathise with the characters?
- What does Irving mean when he talks about living ‘from the feet up’? What ideas does the film explore around authenticity, and what conclusions are drawn? Is authenticity valued by people in our culture, and why or why not?
‘Good storytelling is as much of a seduction as any con.’ – Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer
- What do you think Singer means by this statement, and to what extent do you agree? What are some of the key elements of good storytelling, and how – if at all – does the film demonstrate these? Why do we love to be told stories, and what might this indicate about human nature?
‘The best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something rotten.’ – Roslyn
- What is ‘rotten’ in the characters of American Hustle, and how does the film encourage us to respond to their flaws and weaknesses? Is the film’s portrayal of criminal behaviour ‘morally responsible’, and how would you define this term in the context?
- To what extent do you agree with Carmine Polito’s description of himself as ‘a good person’, and does the film as a whole seem to agree with him? In what significant ways does he differ from the other characters in his motives and actions? Is it ever acceptable to ‘do the wrong thing for the right reasons’?
- To what extent do you think each of the characters got what they deserved at the end of the story? Did the film go far enough in showing the negative consequences of Irving and Sydney’s crimes?
‘You can never beat the truth – never. It always, eventually, catches up to you.’ – Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer
- How does the truth catch up with each of the characters over the course of the film, and how do they each react when confronted by it? Who is changed in a positive way, and who crumbles or chooses to ignore it? Why can it be so hard to confront the truth about ourselves, and what might determine whether our response is constructive or destructive?
‘Who you are is who you are between you and God.’ – Richie
- To what extent is ‘conning ourselves’ a basic human trait, and what do you think are the most universal areas of self-deceit? What might make this con feel necessary, and what might make it damaging? What do you make of Richie’s statement about our true identity, and its spiritual aspect?