The movie starts with a 70s Technicolor logo of Columbia Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, and Annapurna Pictures.
A title caption reads that the following is loosely based on a true story.
April 28, 1978:
In a suite in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, a fat Jewish man named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is elaborately fixing his hair in a comb over to hide a huge balding spot on his head. This goes on for several minutes. He finally hairsprays it in place. Irving leaves his room and walks into an adjacent hotel room where a surveillance team is recording the video and audio of another room. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) enters and exchanges an angry look with Irving. It is broken up by the entrance of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who begins arguing with Irving, saying he got them a suite at the Plaza Hotel and mentions that he’s never touched Sydney (there is obviously some jealousy between Irving and Richie over her). As Richie and Irving quarrel, Richie messes up his comb over, leaving the hairpiece sticking straight up. Sydney, in her British dialect, rushes to fix it.
The three walk into a hotel room on the same floor and put on friendly faces. They are meeting Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Richie has a briefcase at his feet and tries to push it towards the mayor. The mayor’s associate, Carl Elway, notices and tells him he’ll handle it and Richie rambles that it would be disrespectful to “the sheikh” if Polito doesn’t take it. Carmine becomes suspicious, saying he came to meet a sheikh but the fact that a briefcase is being forced on him is freaking him out and he decides to leave. Richie and Irving begin fighting again with Irving finally agreeing to “mop up” the mess Richie caused by being dumb and sliding the briefcase conspicuously.
We now go back in time several years and explore the events that will lead up to this meeting.
In his childhood, Irving narrates that his father owned a glass business and Irving notices him being taken advantage of by customers. It convinces him to drum up business for his dad by breaking glass windows in the area with a baseball bat. As an adult, Irving also owns a glass business… as well as a bunch of dry cleaners. At a pool party, Irving meets a nice red-haired girl in a fur coat named Sydney Prosser, who speaks with an American accent. When Irving notices her bracelet has Duke Ellington’s picture on it, they bond over their love of the jazz musician. They go upstairs and play one of his records, and Irving’s confidence attracts her. Irving and Sydney have a lot in common because she comes from a background of limited options (such as a stint as a stripper). Sydney professes that she is a bold person, and Irving praises Sydney’s ability to reinvent herself.
Sydney has recently started working at Cosmopolitan Magazine. Irving knows she is too smart to work at a clerical job. She is broke and fearless with nothing to lose; her dream has been to become anyone else other than who she was. So she thinks nothing of going with Irving as he shows her one of her dry cleaning stores. He takes her to the back where things that were left behind or forgotten are stored; they try on various clothes and end up kissing between the dry cleaning conveyors.
A few days later, Irving shows Sydney his office where there are tons of paintings on display. He tells her that his new business helps guys get loans who can’t get loans. When he hesitates upon being asked how he gets them money, she realizes he is a con artist, who takes his clients’ $5,000 fee but makes no effort to pay them back. He defends himself by saying the guys that are desperate to invest with him are people at the bottom with gambling problems and embezzling. She points out he takes advantage of desperate people, and he asks if she wants to join him. She walks off without saying anything, exiting the office. Irving goes back to his desk, upset that he has crossed a line with a woman he genuinely likes. Moments later, though, she returns, this time using a British accent, introducing herself as “Lady Edith Greensly”, who has royal banking connections in London.
From this point on, Irving and Sydney become partners. The scheme is simple: Sydney tells new acquaintances that she has London banking connections, so their husbands will overhear and beg her to let them invest with Irving. To hook them, she refuses to help out, making them more eager to connect with Irving. One by one, people come to Irving’s desk; Sydney (under her alias Edith) and Irving convince everyone that they are selective so all of the desperate men end up begging for Irving to take their $5,000 in hopes of a $50,000 in return. Irving’s business triples due to Sydney’s close attention to detail. They also sell art on the side. All of the paintings are forgeries, but with the British Lady Edith Greensly alias helping sell them as authentic, each one is sold.
Due to their success, they rent out a better office, calling it London Associates (in honor of Sydney’s fake accent). The two fall in love with each other, go dancing, have sex, and more. In voice-over, Irving admits we’re all conning ourselves to get through life, leaving out the ugly truth in his case. In fact, he’s currently married and has adopted his wife’s son (from another man) who he loves as his own.
In his Long Island home, Irving comes home where he talks to his young son, Danny, who tells him that his mom was late picking him up from school, and that a sun lamp caught on fire that afternoon while she was drinking. His shrew and alcoholic wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is defending herself, saying she put out the fire. The left side of her face is completely red with burns. They quarrel and she hilariously defends herself every time he criticizes her, blaming sun lamps for being dangerous and saying it probably happens all the time. He tells her he’s not happy, and she takes a moment and says that he can’t divorce her because then she just might take Danny and never let Irving see him again. She says nobody in her family has ever gotten a divorce and she won’t be the first; and points out that they fight and fuck and that’s their thing. In voice-over, he says she was the Picasso of passive-aggressive and was better than any con artist. Meanwhile, Rosalyn strips down to her underwear and seduces Irving, to get him to forget he is angry with her.
Sydney and Irving’s operation goes perfectly, until they try to scam someone else out of their $5,000. Their victim ultimately is Richie, whom we met at the beginning of the film. He mentions that Lady Edith had done a good job convincing him to come in over their two lunches. Irving gets jealous as they reminisce about their outings together; it is obvious she really had a fun time with him versus just trying to con him. Richie holds out his $5,000 check, but now Irving is suspicious. Sydney finally takes the check instead. When the two try to sneak out of the office, they run into undercover cops. Because Irving didn’t take the money, Richie can’t arrest him, but Sydney is arrested for fraud, because she is not British nobility and has no banking connections. Richie shows off his badge, revealing that he’s an FBI agent.
Sydney is taken to an interrogation room where she is incarcerated there for three days. Only Richie is allowed to communicate with her. She goes stir crazy given that her cell has no furniture. Richie tells her that Irving is taking advantage of her and puts it in her head that Irving is loyal to his wife and son and that she is being fooled; he uses the fact that Irving has not come visit her as proof that he doesn’t really care about her (when in truth, Irving has been forbidden to see her). Richie concludes the conversation by revealing that he has a romantic interest in her; the entire time, she remains speechless so he still thinks she is British and named Edith Greensly.
On the third day, Irving is looking through the glass at the jail cell with Sydney oblivious to him from the other side. Richie talks to Irving about his dishonesty, and then explains that he wants to combat white-collar crime and can, with Irving’s help. He wants Irving to help him trap four similar con artists and if he does, Sydney and he will be free of all charges.
Now back home at her Manhattan apartment, Sydney suggests to Irving and they both flee the country to Romania, but Irving refuses because he doesn’t want to leave Danny behind. She becomes accusatory, because Richie has planted it in her head that Irving is just using her and doesn’t care about her. She finally agrees to help entrap four con artists to clear their names and tells Irving that she is going to get romantically close to Richie in case they need him in the future.
Irving, Sydney, and Richie are in an art gallery with an Arab sheikh. Irving is rude to Richie but Sydney defends him. Irving explains their plan by going around the gallery with a wealthy sheikh: people who want to sell fake bank CDs and take the sheikh’s money will approach them for an introduction. Since there are very few con artists who sell fraudulent art, it does not take long to attract someone unscrupulously interested in the seemingly wealthy oilman walking alongside Irving. In actuality, the sheikh a friend of Irving’s from Queens, and not a real Arab.
Irving shows Richie a painting and explains that it is a fake and that people believe what they want to believe. The colleague from before interrupts, asking Irving to introduce him to the sheikh (so he can take advantage of him). Irving refuses in the same way Sydney does when she wants to hook someone; this time, it’s Sydney that steps up and acts as a middleman between the con artist and their group.
In his office, Irving secretly records one of his friends, Carl, asking if he can sell fake certificates and deposits to Irving’s investor, the sheikh. Sydney and Richie arrive, and Carl is told his appointment is up, all while Irving is pretending he’s not interested in working with Carl. But when Richie helps sell the story of the sheikh by pointing out that he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Carl says he has an investment bigger than bank CDs. The sheikh can invest in the rebuilding of Atlantic City, a task taken on by Carmine Polito.
At the FBI, Richie’s boss, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) tells him they shouldn’t try to entrap Carmine Polito, who is also a family guy well-loved by everyone in his community. Carmine had just gotten gambling legalized in Atlantic City and wants to rebuild the city, but is having trouble raising the money. Stoddard says they shouldn’t go after a politician; Richie tells him to put $2 million into a Chase bank account under the sheikh’s name so Carmine can verify that the sheikh is real. Stoddard refuses to wire taxpayers’ money into an account, even if it’s controlled by them, and begins telling Richie a story about ice fishing with his family. He says his brother wanted to go ice fishing in October and their dad said no because the ice was too thin. Richie says he knows where the story’s going: the brother was too eager and fell through the ice, just like he himself is too eager. Stoddard said, no, that’s not the point of the story, and tells Richie they’ll continue it another time.
Even though Stoddard has shut the operation down, Sydney/Edith schemes on Richie’s behalf. She becomes friends with the woman in charge of all the wires, Brenda, a lonely cat woman (Colleen Camp) who is appreciative of Sydney’s friendship. They get her to wire two million dollars into an FBI-controlled account. Edith then makes sure that Stoddard’s boss, Anthony Amando (Alessandro Nivola) is impressed with the plan so that when he calls Stoddard to praise him, Stoddard won’t be able to back out of it.
Irving is now irritated that Sydney and Richie have made this about entrapping politicians since he thought they would fulfill their duty with very small criminals. Sydney supports Richie, who is adamant that he wants to think big and use video surveillance to capture big guys (and get the glory for it). Irving tells him he’s going to have to rent out a luxury suite to trick Carmine Polito into believing the sheikh is real, even though Richie thinks it’s unnecessary. Irving then gets mad when he finds out Sydney used her skills to get the Bureau to wire two millions to fool the sheikh and leaves Sydney alone with Richie. He straddles her on the table and they kiss, but then retracts, holding just her foot instead. He exits, leaving her flustered.
A surveillance video is played of Richie showing the briefcase filled with cash that will be used to entrap the mayor. We are now back at the opening scene, where Carmine gets suspicious and leaves the hotel room. Like before, Irving runs after him. He finds Carmine outside of the Plaza on the street, bent on escaping the situation. But Irving convinces him that the opportunity they presented is real and badmouths Richie as being inferior to them. The two end up bonding as they discover they have a few things in common. Carmine says he was nervous because he was expecting to meet with the sheikh, but admits that he likes Irving and therefore will continue business with him instead of Richie.
Irving tells Richie that Carmine agreed to go out to dinner with Irving and his wife but doesn’t want to deal with Richie anymore. Richie is adamant to be included because he wants to use Carmine to find crooked politicians whom Carmine bribe to pay off people for licenses and casinos. Irving points out that Richie is taking them to a dangerous place; Sydney is more upset that Rosalyn gets to go to dinner with Irving instead of her.
At home, it’s revealed that Richie lives in a decrepit apartment with his overbearing and controlling mother. During dinner with his mother and a fiancee he doesn’t love, he gets a call from Sydney/Edith who is upset about being left alone while Irving is out with Rosalyn. Richie agrees to meet Sydney, but before he heads out, he tells his mom how he’s going to finally prove himself and no longer be a laughing stock.
At dinner, Irving introduces Rosalyn to Carmine’s wife, Dolly (Elisabeth Rohm). The four of them have a great dinner. The New York City-accented Rosalyn is obviously uncultured, but instead of weakening Carmine’s perception of Irving, she actually ends up charming the table. She goes into a long story about her nail finish that has a topcoat that smells both perfume and rotten, sweet and sour, like flowers with garbage. She eventually gets drunk and falls out of her chair.
At the same time, Sydney and Richie are out on the streets of New York. Richie opens up to her that he wants to do something with his life. They end up at a dance club and bond over disco dancing; the moves get steamier and steamier until they are both sexually aroused. They cut in front of a long line of women in the restroom and fool around in a stall, but Sydney/Edith decides to wait until the two of them get real with each other before they fuck. She gives him a long kiss before he leaves the stall, but she stays behind to pee, letting out a thrilled scream on the toilet.
At dinner, Irving and Carmine are really bonding, singing along to a karaoke song. Next moment, Carmine is introducing Irving to a colleague, telling him that Irving is going to get New Jersey back on its feet by helping rebuild Atlantic City and creating thousands of jobs. Irving begins feeling guilty now that he’s getting close to Carmine.
The next day, Carmine and Irving are eating breakfast. Carmine talks about how much he loves his community and he really wants the sheikh to realize how helpful his investment is going to be to the people in town. They walk to Carmine’s car and he opens the trunk to reveal a thank you gift to Irving, something that is too new technologically for Irving to recognize. Carmine explains that it’s a microwave and it heats up food in a scientific way. Once again, Irving feels guilty but Carmine doesn’t catch on; he just tells Irving not to put metal in his gift.
At the FBI, Richie (now in sunglasses and a bomber jacket) is demanding that the sheikh arrive in a jet; Stoddard says he should just arrive on the curb at JFK. Richie aggressively points out they should be committed to selling the sheikh as wealthy and finally is successful in convincing Stoddard. Richie walks away, but stops to request Stoddard finish the ice fishing story. Stoddard says his brother and he were on the ice and he saw his father running towards them; Stoddard stepped in front of his brother to protect him. Richie says, “Oh, you were trying to protect your brother but you couldn’t just like you are trying to protect me. The story’s about protection.” Stoddard says, “No, that’s not what it’s about.” Richie leaves.
In Long Island, Rosalyn is mocking Irving, muttering to herself “Don’t put metal in the science oven, don’t put metal in the science oven.” She puts a foil-wrapped tray inside the microwave, and it immediately explodes. Danny shouts, “Another fire!”
When Irving comes home, he is irritated that Rosalyn destroyed the microwave Carmine gave him, but she responds by making fun of him for being in love with Carmine, and says he should get a chain with a gold microwave around his neck. She also points out that she read that science ovens take the nutrients out of their food, and hands him a magazine article to prove it. As he reads, she mutters to herself, “Bring something into this house that’s going to take all the nutrition out of our food, and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me.”
On the tarmac, Richie and Sydney kiss while Irving watches on. She encourages Richie to not be nervous. As he walks away, Irving approaches her, but she wants nothing to do with him, upset that she has to share him with Rosalyn. Richie and Irving board the private jet that the FBI has rented for an hour. They meet the fake sheikh, replacing Irving’s friend, since this guy is with the Bureau. Irving is irritated because he’s a Mexican named Paco Hernandez (Michael PeÃ±a) and doesn’t speak Arabic, although Paco says he knows a few phrases. Irving tells Paco to give Carmine an ornate dagger and present it as if it’s a sacred, expensive artifact. Paco points out that the name of the operation is offensive: it’s revealed to be Abscam (Arab scam). Irving responds, “What do you care? You’re Mexican.”
The fake sheikh greets Carmine outside the jet and presents him with the sacred knife.
At home, Rosalyn is bitching to Irving that she cannot go to a meeting with him, even though she’s already done her hair. She answers a ringing phone, and Richie is on the other end. Rosalyn listens in from a phone in the kitchen and overhears Richie talking about feds. After he hangs up, Rosalyn asks Irving if the conversation has to do with IRS, a tax thing. The phone rings again and this time, it’s Carmine. Rosalyn tells him that Irving isn’t letting her come to the event that night; when Irving takes the phone, Carmine tells him that his wife is the life of the party and to bring her. Irving is nervous, telling Carmine that his wife is unpredictable (he’s secretly worried that she will blow their cover somehow). Carmine won’t take no for an answer; Donna has even bought the nail finish Rosalyn had told her she couldn’t find. Now Irving has no choice but to bring Rosalyn along.
Out front, Irving and Carmine bond with Rosalyn and Dolly; their bonding is interrupted by the arrival of Sydney and Richie and the (Mexican) sheikh. Rosalyn stares at Sydney and mutters,” I know who you are.” She repeats to Irving that she knows who Sydney is.
Everybody enters the lobby of the hotel-casino. Carmine obviously has a genuine interest in creating a great Atlantic City, more so than making money. He tells Irving that he saved them $50 million by choosing to renovate instead of building from the ground up. They go into the gambling room where Rosalyn glares at Sydney some more. Carmine pulls Irving aside and tells him that he is saving a lot of money by working with casino guys standing at the bar who happen to be the mob. Irving tries to circumvent a meeting with them, but Rosalyn, hearing everyone is nervous to approach, decides to cross to the mob guys and say hello. She catches the eye of Pete Musane (Jack Huston) whom she flirts with. Irving and Carmine now approach to reel in Rosalyn; Richie steps forward as well, introducing the sheikh. The guys at the bar tell them that Victor Tellegio (a mob boss) is in the back room and wants to meet them. Irving tries to avoid the situation but the mob guys insist.
Richie, Irving, Carmine, and the sheikh now meet Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro in a surprise cameo), a mob boss who never buried a body because he felt it left a better message to just leave it in the street. Employees set up a table and they all take a seat. Victor says its been a dream to build casino resorts on the East Coast. He says even though Carmine made this legal, he has 40 years of history and has to be careful. To get a gaming license and keep it, they will have to make their principal investor, the sheikh, an American citizen. Carmine is asked to use congressmen and senators he knows to expedite citizenship, although Irving tries to talk him out of doing something unscrupulous (because they’ve become close). Victor is suspicious of Irving’s concern, and he points out that they are a real organization and he hopes that everything else is real. He begins speaking Arabic to the sheikh to see if he actually knows the language. It turns out he’s got casino investments in the Middle East, and he spent two years learning Arabic to keep an upper hand. Irving and Richie get very scared. Richie tries to intervene, but Mr. Tellegio insists the sheikh speak for himself. Someone enters the room, interrupting. Paco then says, in Arabic, “It’ll be great doing business with you. The investment is real. It was a pleasure to meet you.” Even though his memorized phrases are not in response to what Victor said, it’s enough to assuage his suspicion.
Mr. Tellegio says they should put $10 million in the bank of his choice in the next two weeks or else they will insult his friends in Florida. Outside, Sydney asks Rosalyn to come with he,r but Rosalyn refuses, calling her her husband’s whore. Sydney and Dolly continue glaring at Rosalyn across the room while Rosalyn and Pete end up bonding over their love of the phrase “What’s meant to be will be.”
Moments later, Rosalyn goes to the bathroom. Sydney follows behind, yelling at her for flirting with the mobsters. Rosalyn is unmoved, pointing out that she has a ring on her finger. Sydney replies that what Irving and she had might be over now, but it was beautiful and it was real and they loved each other. This makes Rosalyn cry. Sydney continues, pointing out that Rosalyn scares and manipulates Irving by the use of her son. Rosalyn replies by saying he keeps coming back, so there must be something he loves, just like perfume that you can’t stop smelling even though there’s something sour in it. She tells Sydney’s he’s never going to leave her, and she’s going to make Sydney sorry for what she’s done to her family. They call each other gross, and Rosalyn applauds Irving for being consistent and says, “Sometimes all you have in life are fucked up, poisonous choices.” She then kisses Sydney hard on the mouth and walks away, laughing. A dazed Sydney wipes a big lipstick smear from her mouth.
In the lobby, Rosalyn finds Pete and begins sobbing in his arms. Sydney walks away, turning around to see a very upset Rosalyn with Pete. She steps into the back room and whispers something to Irving. The group leaves Mr. Tellegio behind. He watches them go.
On stage, in a ballroom, Carmine is introduced to the crowd. Irving is flustered from all the excitement of meeting Victor Tellegio, and takes a pill for his heart to calm himself down. Rosalyn walks by him with Pete. Sydney stands nearby with Richie, both listening to Carmine’s enthusiastic speech to a cheering crowd of locals. Carmine further reveals that he really loves his community, and that has been his motivation for wanting to restore Atlantic City.
Irving goes to one of his dry cleaners and opens a safe in the back. He takes out a lot of cash, as well as a handgun. He then stands inside the dry cleaner conveyor, the location where he first kissed Sydney.
Meanwhile, Richie knocks on Sydney’s door at her apartment. He still thinks she’s Edith, a British woman. Richie tells her last night was insane and calls Stoddard to request the Sherman suite at the Plaza Hotel (an entire floor); Stoddard refuses. Richie explains that Carmine has admitted to taking bribes from members of Congress and reveals that Victor Tellegio is demanding ten million dollars in two weeks. He becomes ecstatic as Stoddard refuses to cooperate and hangs up the phone. He begins kissing Sydney, and asks her to calm him down; he then demands they finally have sex. As they begin getting intimate, she reminds him they’re not going to go all the way until they get real. He tells her he loves her, and points out that everything has just gotten real. Moved by his feelings for her, they kiss some more, and she interrupts to tell him the truth that she’s an American, not a British woman as she’s been pretending. He is confused. She tells him she’s falsified her records, and her name is Sydney Prosser from Albuquerque, New Mexico. He asks why she was doing an English accent after they agreed to be real in the stall; she says she needed the Edith persona to survive, the way he lives with his mom and fiancee he doesn’t acknowledge, and curls his hair even though he has straight hair. She points out we all do things to survive. He says he’s confused, and that maybe fucking will help. They begin to kiss again, but she’s not into it; to get him away from her, she smashes a small framed picture over his head.
Just then, Irving enters. He points his handgun at Richie and asks him to step away from Edith. He reveals he knows she is Sydney and that she is not British; she admits that she told him and doesn’t care. Irving tells Richie what they’ve gotten into is worse than jail, and since they can’t get ten million wired to Tellegio, the jig is up. Richie points out that when Tellegio finds out he’s been had, he’s not going to go after Richie (an FBI agent) or Carmine (a politician), he’s going to go after Irving and his son, as well as Sydney. Richie calls Stoddard again and demands the suite of the Plaza Hotel and to be told the point of the fishing story; Stoddard replies, “Not the way you’re behaving.” Still frustrated, Richie asks Stoddard where he is and upon being told a location, says he’s going to go there right now, to beat his ass.
Irving and Sydney are left behind, terrified since they are now in danger. Sydney points out she was Irving’s lifeline out, and he blew the chance to run away before. She tells him they have to get over on all these guys, and he agrees that, whatever they do, it will have to be the best con they’ve ever done.
At the FBI headquarters, Anthony Amado is listening to a deposition from Stoddard about Richie threatening to kill him. It’s then revealed that Richie has, in fact, beat up Stoddard with a telephone receiver, who has all kinds of bruises on his face and a bandage over his left eye. Richie uses the meeting to request the Sherman Suite in the Plaza Hotel; he points out that the mafia and crooked politicians have intersected, and that they can snag all of them with Anthony’s approval. Anthony says he won’t wire ten million dollars, but he will pay for the Sherman suite so they can record congressmen taking bribes. He tells Richie he’s proud of him.
Outside, Stoddard yells at Richie. Richie only asks how the fishing story ends, and when Stoddard refuses to tell him, Richie says he’ll call Stoddard’s brother. Stoddard replies, “My brother’s dead!” Richie then thinks he’s figured out the story: Stoddard’s brother fell through the ice. Stoddard replies, “No, he died a different way many years later.” (The ending to ice fishing story is never revealed)
Richie makes amends with both Sydney and Irving in the Plaza Hotel. They set up a room in the Sherman suite with hidden cameras.
Carmine calls several congressmen, and tries to convince them to make investment opportunities. Richie videotapes himself putting bribes into suitcases. They meet various congressmen and a senator, pitching the idea to each one. One agrees to expedite the sheikh’s citizenship. Several others feel secure in investing because they know Carmine is a good man. One by one, they take all the bribes. Irving feels guilty, knowing Carmine only has good intentions. He steps outside and talks to Sydney who says the only way to help Carmine is through their plan for Tellegio, a plan that makes Irving nervous. Sydney assures him there’s only one thing that can mess things up and that’s his wife.
Cut to Rosalyn dropping Danny off at school and then being picked up by the mob guy, Pete; she has her sweet and sour nail finish in hand. Pete and Rosalyn go to a fancy restaurant where Pete tries to convince her to go to Florida with him, leaving Irving behind. Rosalyn responds by venting about her husband, explaining that she hears him on the phone and that he loves Carmine but hates the curly-headed IRS guy. She expands, explaining that he’s in some kind of bind, throwing money to Congress or something. Pete gives Rosalyn a huge wad of cash and says he has to leave to talk to his boss (Tellegio) back home. She tells Pete not to hurt Irving too hard.
At home, Rosalyn goes home and sings along to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” while she cleans her house. This is juxtaposed with Irving and Carmine ambushed by Pete and taken for a ride.
Rosalyn tells Danny the truth about his father, and tells him not to repeat it. Outside, a car squeals up onto her driveway. Irving enters the house, yelling at Rosalyn, telling her that he knows she was in Pete’s car because she had left her sweet and sour nail polish on the dashboard. This tipped him off to know he was in danger. During the drive, the mob guy in the backseat put a canvas bag over Irving’s head and then pointed a gun at his neck. Rosalyn defends herself, telling him not to scream at her. But Irving is frantic since he knows how much danger she put him in. She replies, crying, saying she is left alone all day and she just wants him to love her but since he can’t, she’s going away with Pete. Irving is concerned about how much danger she’d be in if she moved to Florida with a mob guy. She says she only meets people through him, so whom else did he expect her to date instead of him? Irving struggles for a heart pill, and she asks him what kind of trouble he’s in. He tells her he has a plan, and it came to him when he was in the canvas bag.
We return to a few minutes earlier. Irving tells Pete that he has two million out of the ten that will be wired that week. At home, Rosalyn takes credit for Irving getting himself out of a bad situation, saying she knows how hard he is to motivate, and that she knew if she got Pete to knock some sense into his head, he would figure things out. She tells him about a book she’s reading called The Power of Intention, and the reason she sent Pete to him was so Irving could come up with the plan. She tells him, “You’re welcome,” and in disbelief, he thanks her. Rosalyn tells him maybe she’s a better partner than Edith (Sydney), and maybe he underestimated her. She tells him she’ll tell Pete she was wrong about the IRS, but points out she was actually right and repeats her the power of intention motto. She then tells him he needs to grow up and face the facts that they should get a divorce.
In voice-over, Irving explains that necessity is the mother of invention, and the FBI is willing to wire two million dollars if it means taking down Tellegio and his entire organization. Tellegio won’t meet at a public place like the Plaza but only at the office of his attorney.
So Irving, Sydney, and Richie visit a skyscraper in New York with high security. They are finally allowed inside, but Tellegio is not there– only his lawyer, Alfonse Simone, and a secretary. Alfonse admits the trip was unnecessary because everything could have been done with a wire transfer. He gives the number of Tellegio’s account on a piece of paper, and tells them Victor is out of town. Richie is upset and says they were willing to come in person to give two million dollars out of respect. Alfonse points out he still has the power of attorney, but Irving suggests they just leave; Sydney and he debate back and forth whether they should stay or not. Irving and Richie start to leave but Sydney stays behind and suggests they call the sheikh. Richie catches on and says they’ll call the sheikh if Alfonse explains specifically what the money will be used for. Alfonse responds by revealing, “We will guarantee all proper licenses and construction permits for any hotel-casino that plans to open before the end of the year. And we’ll throw in the customary privileges and protections.” Richie asks, “What if there’s obstacles? What will you do?” Alfonse responds, “If we have to pay somebody off, we’ll pay somebody off. If we have to lean on somebody, intimidate somebody, we’ll intimidate somebody.” He also adds, “At the end of this, we’ll teach you how to skim and make some money on the side because we invented skimming and have been doing it for 30 years.”
This is all captured on a video in Sydney’s purse and on a wire in Richie’s tie. Richie calls Anthony at the wiring desk with Brenda, the cat lady. Now that they have evidence against Tellegio, Anthony (talking on the phone as if he works for the sheikh) agrees to wire the money to catch Victor accepting a bribe. The money is transferred.
Irving, Sydney, and Richie leave. Richie is ecstatic at getting evidence that Tellegio is corrupt. He goes back to the office, screaming about finally getting some respect as everyone in his office cheers. The recording of Alfonse admitting that they intimidate people to get what they want is played and everyone cheers again. In a great mood, Richie begins humping Stoddard’s leg, laughing at him as Stoddard leaves the room, moping.
Irving and Sydney drive to Carmine’s house. While Sydney waits in the car, Irving gets out and reveals to Carmine that the sheikh was a fake and that he was working with the Feds. Carmine gets upset, pointing out that he’s been a politician for 20 years and that he didn’t want to take the money, but Irving chased after him to convince him to do business, even though his judgment told him to leave. Carmine adds that everything he did was for the good of the people of New Jersey, and he had no selfish motives. Irving knows this is true, and says he has some leverage to make it right. Carmine is just upset, pointing out the ceremonial knife he has on display in his living room and how much he’s been fooled. Carmine kicks Irving out of his house as all of Carmine’s sons and daughters watch from his staircase, in tears.
Irving collapses on his way back to the car, stressed and fumbling for heart pills. Sydney helps him back to the car. They rest on the seats; she kisses his hand and it’s obvious they are in love again.
Cut to Richie, Stoddard, and Anthony with accusatory stares at the FBI headquarters. Sydney and Irving stand opposite them. Anthony reveals the two million dollars that was wired is missing. An anonymous phone call has told them that in exchange for immunity for Sydney and Irving, and a reduced sentence for Carmine Polito, they will get their two million dollars back. Irving and Sydney refuse any involvement. Richie points out that they can be charged for wire fraud but Irving points out that it was Richie that requested the two million (Irving had tried to convince them to leave), and Richie had given the wiring instructions. Irving also points out that if the public found out about Richie’s gross incompetence, the FBI would be a laughing stock.
It turns out that when Richie went back to bust Alfonse Simone, there was a divorce attorney there instead. The man Rich thought was Alfonso Simone was actually Ed Malone, the mutual con artist friend who threw the party that Irving first met Sydney at. Richie defends himself by saying he was conned; Irving points out that it makes him look just as incompetent, since he was conned by the very same con men whom he forced to entrap the members of Congress in the first place. He also points out that Richie was only able to find evidence against good guys like Carmine who were really just working to better New Jersey; and that he didn’t get anything on the big guys like Tellegio. Stoddard tells Richie he should go home, and that he won’t be involved with the case anymore, except for witness testimony.
Six congressmen, one senator, and Carmine Polito are all arrested. Because the two million is given back by Irving and Sydney, Carmine’s sentence is reduced to 18 months. When the story was written, all accounts of Richie’s involvement are left out; he never gets the glory he craved for so long. Sydney and Irving move in together; Rosalyn goes on to live with Pete, who tells Irving that Victor Tellegio appreciates him for making sure he was free of any conviction (since he never took any money, since the two million dollars was wired to Irving and Sydney instead). Before they go, Rosalyn gives Irving the sweet and sour nail finish she says he loves.
Sydney becomes a surrogate mother to Danny for whenever Rosalyn’s out of town with Pete. She and Irving get a loan from a bank and begin to sell legitimate paintings. The last shot is Sydney back at her apartment, putting Duke Ellington on the record player and staring seductively at Irving.