“American Hustle”– a reaction

My wife and I, in the interest of seeing as many Oscar-nominated films as possible before the awards, went to see American Hustle today–


Let me get some things out of the way first– this film was well written, well-produced, and the entire cast did an outstanding job with their characters. In particular, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were incredible. Everyone nominated for an Oscar for this film are deserving. In addition, I did enjoy the bits– especially the music– that helped recreate the atmosphere of the late-1970’s and gave me a few minutes of warm nostalgia.

Okay, that’s out of the way. On to my reaction.

I freaking hated this film.

Note: I am using the word “freaking” because my wife made me promise not to use the very special words I learned in the US Army. There may be children or sensitive people reading this blog. I am honoring that promise, but because of it, my language will not convey the full force and vigor of my repugnance for this movie.

American Hustle is a fictionalized account of the Abscam scandal, in which the FBI entrapped several politicians into taking bribes from a fake Arab sheikh to facilitate building a New Jersey casino. The focus is on Christian Bale and Amy Adams’ character, small-time grifters who are coerced into assisting the FBI.

Here’s the problem I have with this film– with the exception of one or two minor characters, every character is a con-artist or a criminal of one sort or another– even the FBI. I had no sympathy for or identification with anyone, except for Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), the immediate supervisor of off-the-wall FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Thorsen literally gets beat up in the film trying to rein in DiMaso, and to me seems to be the only sane person in the asylum. The problem is Thorsen is mainly just there as a foil for DiMaso’s lunacy.

Let me try to explain this, although I may not be able to do so in a completely rational manner. I am not, for example, in some sort of moralistic high-dudgeon “this is a terrible example and they should be presenting uplifting moral messages’, blah, blah, blah. Okay, the world’s filled with crooks, I get it. Portraying that is valid. And I am not someone who needs a saccharine/Disney happy ending on every film (see my post on A Man for All Seasons). Instead, it all has much more to do with a personal quirk.

I have long known that for me to enjoy a book or a movie, I usually need to connect to some character I find sympathetic. Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Witt (Jim Caviezel) in The Thin Red Line, somebody. If I am forced to watch a film in which I find no one sympathetic, no one I can root for, I often react with repulsion, especially if the fictional world is also injected with cynicism. If I try to read a book without sympathetic characters, I generally throw it against the wall well before the end.

I found none of the major characters in this film sympathetic, nor did I see anyone I wanted to emerge triumphant. As a result, for me watching this movie was quite painful. If I had been alone, I would have walked out well before the mid-point. I was surly, angry and muttering in resentment when I came out of the theater. It left me depressed; I felt as if I could kick puppies and crush butterflies. I lost two hours and nine minutes of my life I will never get back; the only plus-sides were the The Wind Rises trailer in front of the film and the fact that we got into the movie on gift passes.

I have had this kind of reaction to other films, most particularly Chicago (I have sworn eternal hatred for everything Bob Fosse). For me American Hustle has that same sense of sleazy cynicism, unredeemed by any character I give a damn about.

I know this personal quirk probably indicates a flaw in my creative make-up, most likely that I lack depth in both my appreciation of, and my ability to create, a work of art. If so, so be it– this quirk doubtless is the visible sign of some inward, well-seated personality trait. At my advanced age I have no desire to try to change it, nor to fit my writing into a box it doesn’t fit. Besides, I would hate being nauseous all the time.

So you can just chalk this all up to the limitations and prejudices of an old codger set in his ways. For my part, now that I’ve got this out of my system, I still have the sense that I need to clear my palate. I thought of Man of Steel; but our local PBS channel is showing Aliens, which should just about do the job.

Aliens— now there’s a freaking film.


4 thoughts on ““American Hustle”– a reaction”

  1. Thanks– we’re not going to get to everything before the awards. Personally, I wanted to see “12 Years a Slave” because it relates to history, but it’s not playing in many theaters at this point and my wife was afraid it would be too intense.

  2. One of our local TV channels is showing a mini-series based on a modern day gangster Tony Mokbel and the gangland multiple murders in Melbourne, Australia. Mokbel, head of a drug syndicate was hunted for 18 months before being arrested in Greece. It is one show I will not be watching. Why the hell they have to glamorise criminals I will never know. Millions of dollars wasted that could have been used for something lasting.

    1. “American Hustle” is supposed to be a comedy (?), but I wasn’t laughing, especially when DiMaso was beating the crap out of his own boss. Portraying gangsters is one thing– but I just couldn’t find it in me to give a damn about any of these characters. As I said, it’s probably a sign that I have limitations as a writer. Thanks.

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