We're All Con Artists: 5 Love Lessons From 'American Hustle'

"You're nothing to me until you're everything." This Oscar nominee is a gold mine of love lessons.

american hustle

American Hustle is prepared to strut its stuff big time at the Oscars this year. The dark comedy (and one of this year's most unlikely love stories) has another interesting distinction — it's been voted the #1 date movie of all the Best Picture nominees, according to a just-released Match.com survey.

Directed by David O. Russell (of Silver Linings Playbook fame) and nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards, American Hustle tells a Hollywood-ized version of the very real ABSCAM caper of the 70s, in which the feds took down several government officials, including members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a senator, and the mayor of Camden, N.J., in a morally questionable sting to trap hustlers.


Real-life con man Melvin Weinberg serves as the inspiration for the role of Irving Rosenfeld, played brilliantly by a rather paunchy (and curiously coiffed) Christian Bale. Rosenfeld and his mistress Sydney Prosser, or "Lady Edith" (who works a plunging neckline like no other), are caught in their loan-baiting hustle and strong-armed into working for federal agent Richard DiMaso (a hilariously jheri-curled Bradley Cooper). They get tangled together in ways that cost them all way more than money — trust, reputation, friendships.

Some heal up; some are beyond repair. It's a study in the real damage of what we do to each other to get by.


There are a few good lessons in love to be learned here, no question. Here are some of the biggies.

1. It ain't all about flat abs and a full head of hair.
Amy Adams is as sexy as we've ever seen her (sexier, in fact) as Sydney Prosser. And Christian Bale? Well, he's been hotter. Way hotter. Granted, Rosenfeld, while overly fussy about his complicated combover, is nothing to look at. He's overweight and generally seedy-looking. When they meet at an indoor pool party, Rosenfeld doesn't win Prosser over with his appearance; rather, he graciously notices her Duke Ellington charm bracelet and soon the two are listening to music alone.

Sydney is intrigued by him, belly and all. She sees him for who he is — which is what we all want, in the end. If anything, it's worth recognizing that love can crop up in surprising places. "He wasn't necessarily in good shape, and he had a combover that was rather elaborate," Sydney reflects. "He had this air about him, this confidence that drew me to him. He was who he was. He didn't care." 

2. There's no good or bad guy. Only motivations.
What makes American Hustle so complex and nuanced is the blurred lines between what we think of as "good" and "bad." It's easy to think, Oh, Rosenfeld's the con. He's the bad guy. He's committing adultery, so he's now a bad guy times two, plus now she's also a "bad guy".


You might also then assume that Bradley Cooper's Richard DiMaso, the federal agent, is a good guy, because, well, he wants to catch bad guys. But that's not true. As you quickly learn, DiMaso may work for the feds, but he's toiling in obscurity and desperately wants to make a name for himself — at any cost. He gets a taste for the action, then an insatiable hunger that ultimately compromises his judgment, and costs him shame, embarrassment, and perhaps the worst of all, obscurity.

And don't feel too bad for the poor wife Rosalyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who's on a self-destructive downward spiral herself. Just because she's the one technically married to Rosenfeld — who's cheating on her with Prosser — does not make her a better person, or in the right. In fact, the worst mistake he’s ever made. And surprise! He did it because he thought he was doing the "right" thing: marrying a single mother and adopting her child.

Lesson learned: Don't be too quick to judge. A role, a job, a title — it doesn't necessarily make you or someone else a good guy or beyond scrutiny. You have to look past the objective to the way in which someone achieves it.

3. Everyone's a con artist to get what they need. And everyone's someone's mark.
"As far as I can see, people were always conning each other go get what they wanted," says Rosenfeld. "We’re all conning ourselves in one way or another, just to get through life."


You may not be swindling people out of their life savings, but you do something to get by — as do we all. When Prosser reveals to DiMaso that her "Lady Edith" persona is a sham (as is her British accent), his mind is blown, and she gets defensive, pointing out that she may have lied, but so does he — he puts rollers in his hair and never ever talks about his fiance. "That’s what you do," she says.

No one likes to be conned, but in this film, every one is a con to some degree or another, taken by someone else. Even Rosenfeld, the king of cons, is a mark — for his wife. The difference is, he knows it. She has him by the throat at every turn, using her kid to keep him close. She's a loose cannon, a liability, setting the house on fire with a sun lamp and misusing a microwave oven. But she will not divorce him. "We fight, we fuck, it's what we do," she says. He calls her the "Picasso of passive aggressive karate," and, he says, his karma for how he takes advantage of people. What goes around, comes around.

It's worth asking yourself, What am I doing to get by? To get the love and attention and respect I want? How am I conning the world (and at what cost)? And how is it conning me in return?  

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4. Love is a sting operation.
When Prosser and Rosenfeld have been caught, Prosser says this is it — they have to get out of Dodge. But he won't leave his wife because he'll lose custody, and so he's stuck. Rosenfeld has conned her again: He can't seal the deal. So she says she'll do what she must to survive: Make DiMaso, the fed, believe she likes him, even loves him. She's going to be "very convincing." It's not just a decision; it's a threat.

This is her personal sting operation. The only problem is, she gets stung herself — she falls for DiMaso, who's more intoxicated by the lifestyle than the woman. And when she attempts to love DiMaso "for real" by revealing who she is, well, it doesn't go so well. Because the fact is DiMaso is in love with the illusion and doesnt want to let it go. When she realizes that, it's over.

5. You've got to be willing to call someone's bluff.
In one memorable moment on the tarmac when they're going to get the sheikh, Rosenfeld attempts to engage Prosser (heartbreaking in a cream-colored hat and fur coat). He says she looks beautiful. "Don't talk to me. Don't look at me. We're done," she says. "You're nothing to me until you're everything." She knows that in order to get what she wants, she has to take the risk of pushing him away.


She's not playing games with him. He knows this is true, and ultimately —SPOILER ALERT — he proves himself to be true to her. But she had to be willing to lay down the gauntlet to get what she wants. And it worked. It always does.

Terri Trespicio is New York–based writer, expert, and coach. Visit her at territrespicio.com and on Twitter @TerriT.