Do You Have to Make a Poisonous Choice to Survive?

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is a cinematic treatise on the complexities of survival. Irving Rosenfeld, Sydney Prosser (AKA Lady Edith Greensley), Richie DiMaso, and Rosalyn Rosenfeld are each, in their own uniquely perverse and destructive ways, just trying to survive. But, are they? If we remove ourselves from the intrigue of the hustle itself (based upon the FBI Abscam operation of 1980), what exactly do we learn about this brand of self-serving (or should I say, rather desperate) psychological survival?

What kind of survival is that? Each member of this troubled cast of characters is trying to defeat the shame of their real identities. As Irving says in a voiceover when the film begins: “As far as I could see, people are always conning each other to get what they want. We even con ourselves.” What’s in the con for these four? To be bigger and better than they believe they really are. Does it work for them? No. Even though, for a time, re-invention serves as an escape from each character’s particular mark of shame. This escape from shame is the con, the hustle, or, downright manipulation in Rosalyn’s case.

An American Hustle Out of Their Shame?

Irving’s weak father, that’s his shame. A father who failed at his glass business. So, scamming people to be “a finer man than dad” has its seductive appeal. The shame of sharply intelligent Sydney’s poor upbringing and her short tenure as a stripper makes the lure of re-creating herself as an English “Lady” irresistible. And, she’s fallen in love with Irving’s desire for her along with his and seedy charms. Richie, the FBI agent, is the most troubled of them all. He hates the confining demands of his mother and poor Italian family. He’ll do anything to prove to himself they are not who he is. This means spending hours curling his straight black hair and creating bigger and bigger schemes to rise to the top, eventually escalating to heights of manic delusion.

We never know exactly which side of the law Richie’s on. Is he involved in the hustle for the department? Or lured by the grandeur of this false life? Has he been swayed to join Lady Edith Greensley, or is he undercover all along? Here’s what we do know: he’s power-drunk. As Irving says: “We were successful because we kept it small enough.” Yet, that’s not enough. So, Richie takes his hustle to a dangerously BIG level. His head swells. He snorts coke, becomes increasingly revved up, on power; even beating up his well-meaning moral boss, Stoddard Thorsen, when he puts any restraint on Richie’s growing grandiosity. Richie must be the hero! He prefers being a “fake”. In the end, Irving and Sydney do not.

A Frantic Woman Makes Poisonous Choices

Then, there’s Irving’s wife, Rosalyn: anxious, desperately seductive, and often dangerously disoriented. A woman so frantic for love she’ll go to any length to get it. Or emit “poisonous” revenge if refused. Her anxiety fills many of her waking moments. “I don’t like change. I think I’ll die before I change,” she laments. She’s the character whose anxiety might drive her to my office if her manipulative schemes and twisted maneuvers didn’t work. Rosalyn is the psychological voice of the movie: “you know, sometimes in life all you have are fucked up poisonous choices.” Is that true? Instead of making poisonous choices, what can you do?

Rosalyn’s “poisonous choices” really attempts to manage her fears. She exposes her problems openly throughout American Hustle. She can’t hold back anything she feels or thinks – to the point of almost getting everyone killed. What would I be saying to Rosalyn if she were on my analytic couch?

What Kind of Help Would Rosalyn Need?

I’d let Rosalyn know I understand how desperately frightened she is. How she uses her seductive manipulations to “save” her from the various things she believes will kill her: not only change but especially, losing love and feeling her feelings. Maybe Rosalyn might come to see that the “nasty smell in every sweet perfume” (or act) is her fear of love: she runs from her nasty, unbearable fears of being unwanted, “stupid,” and abandoned.

Rosalyn and I might understand how she turns her feelings around, shoves them away, and puts them into other people so she won’t feel them herself. A good example is trying to make Irving believe that divorce is her idea: “You need to grow up. Face the facts. I think both of us will be a lot happier if we get a divorce.” That’s a self-lie, another poisonous choice to “save” herself from her fears. So, Rosalyn doesn’t make it to my office. She runs off with her Mafia guy in the biggest escape of all. In the end, she’s trapped in another poisonous choice – leaving her feelings (and child) behind.

A Conscience Is Needed To Face Themselves

Irving and Sydney, at least, seem to have a conscience and, by the end of American Hustle can begin to face themselves. Yes, they get caught up in conning themselves and others and are literally caught by Richie in one of their schemes. Being thrown in jail terrifies Sydney, who really isn’t such a criminal at heart. Something breaks in her then.

She tearfully tells Richie “no more fake shit” and spills out the truth of her identity. Mostly, the big FBI sting to give Irving and Sydney immunity brings them back to more real human values, which neither have entirely lost. After all, Irving is capable of love – for his adopted son, Danny, and for Sydney. He also realizes he cares about Carmine Polito’s friendship, the only friend he’s ever had. Betraying him is something Irving can’t live with.

Yet, Irving and Sydney’s last and biggest American Hustle is not just designed to help save Carmine and take Richie down. Yes, Carmine gets a reduced sentence and Richie’s mania is deflated when he crashes back into the reality of his meager and hated existence. But, this last hustle, in the end, is mostly designed to deflate their own mania and to be saved from their conning selves. They seem to succeed. Come clean. Drop the “fake shit”. Irving and Sydney begin to live in reality, make healthier choices. And, it looks very likely, they might do a bit more than survive.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.