Fading Glamour and Psychological Grit in ‘American Hustle’

Who’s the criminal in a thieving system? In a band of uglies, who’s the worst? We audience members love watching horrible people make bad choices. The length of the average feature length film gives us just the right amount of time to decide who we feel sympathy for, who did the darkest deeds, who deserved what he got, and who we identify with the most. Deeper still, when we’re faced with layer upon layer of human emotion -the softest and grimiest things about characters- we get a golden opportunity to judge so much that we have to zoom out and pause. We are forced to recognize that there’s only so much we can call bad before we start to apply our sympathies for our own sake. It’s only entertaining to judge to a point, then we start to look in the mirror for one reason or another- we start to think about all those times we judged on a personal level. And it catches us exposed, so we cover it up with some empathy. American Hustle centers viewers in a kind of kaleidoscope of crime, both the interpersonal personal kind and the broader kind that involves folks the bad guys are hardened towards…pathetic strangers. We’re mesmerized by the inner workings of highly professional criminals and all-in-all scheming, selfish federal agents who join forces to catch, of all people, public representatives (politicians). We watch, wondering what exactly the agents and professional thieves purpose is if it isn’t to catch somebody doing something bad. It’s hard to tell who’s on the right side or, even more importantly, what side might be considered right. In the end, the characters we’ve judged most harshly all redeem themselves; ironically, they make their amends with other characters who viewers probably assumed were scary/bad/venomous to anything on the right side of the line- mob bosses and general cheats. The takeaway is that viewers assume from the start that there’s a line when they know there are thieves and Feds, and, like any great film, they get seduced into being proven quite wrong about their line. It’s a pleasure of entertainment to be proven wrong about the good and the bad.

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