Do You Have to Make a Poisonous Choice to Survive?

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AMERICAN HUSTLE — 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 can we learn about this particular brand of self-serving (or should I say, rather desperate) psychological survival?

Each member of this troubled cast of characters is trying to “survive” the limits of their real identities. As Irving says in a voice over 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 escape from each character’s particular mark of shame. This escape from shame is the con, the hustle, or, outright manipulation in Rosalyn’s case.

Irving’s shame is his weak father who failed at his glass business. Scamming people to be a finer man 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 and seedy charms. Richie, the FBI agent, is the most troubled of them all. He hates the confines of his mother and poor Italian family and will do anything to prove to himself they are not who he is. He spends 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 is he 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.” But, Richie is taking the hustle to a dangerously BIG level, and his head is swelling. He’s snorting coke. He’s becoming 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.

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? Or, if you are making them, what can you do?

Let’s take Rosalyn and her “poisonous choices” (which are really attempts to manage her anxieties). Her problems are quite accessible. She can’t contain anything she feels or thinks – to the point of almost getting everyone killed. What would I be thinking and saying to Rosalyn if she were on my analytic couch?

I’d let Rosalyn know I understand how desperately frightened she is. I’d help her see 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. I’d help Rosalyn see that the “nasty smell in every sweet perfume” (or act) is designed to maneuver away from unbearable fears of being unwanted, stupid, and abandoned. By helping her tolerate her feelings in the room with me, I would show Rosalyn how she turns them around, putting them into other people in order not to feel them herself. A good example is trying to make Irving believe that divorce is her idea: “You need to grow up.  You need to face the facts. I think both of us will be a lot happier if we get a divorce.” But, Rosalyn doesn’t make it to my office. She goes off with her Mafia guy in the biggest escape of all, trapped in another poisonous choice – leaving her feelings (and child) with Irving.

Irving and Sydney, at least, seem to have a conscience and, in the end, can face themselves. Yes, they get caught up in conning themselves and others, and literally caught by Richie in one of their schemes. But, being thrown in jail terrifies Sydney, who really isn’t such a criminal at heart. Something breaks in her then. This is especially clear when she tearfully tells Richie “no more fake shit” and the truth of her identity. Mostly, the big FBI sting to give Irving and Sydney immunity brings them both 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 hustle is more than 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, the last hustle, in the end, is mostly designed to deflate their own mania and to save them from their conning selves. They seem to succeed. They come clean. They drop the “fake shit”. They begin to live in reality, make healthier choices and, it looks like, will more than survive.

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