I saw the movie American Hustle over the weekend. I liked it. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. On the surface the film appears to be the story of a sad-sack guy who gets into trouble through poor decisions, feels horribly trapped by everything, and then tries to get out.
I … I more or less have no patience for this narrative. I rather intensely dislike it in life. Did you make bad decisions? Sure, we all do. But own them. Don’t blame others for your bad judgement. Are you trapped by your life? Possibly, but it’s more possible that you just don’t like making decisions. None of us do. Suck it up.
I have almost no patience for this narrative because I used to adhere to this narrative. I lived the script of “I didn’t do this, these bad things just happen to me, woe woe pity and woe.” That narrative, it never helped me solve my problems. That narrative, it gives all the power to other people. That narrative prevents wounds from closing, it prevents moving on, because it doesn’t allow the narrator any agency or autonomy. Woe, me, buffeted by the whims of others.
Fuck that narrative.
That script can piss right off.
I have almost no patience for that narrative in reality. And I have only a fraction more patience for it in fiction. And, yes, that is almost exactly the theme of American Hustle. Guy makes bad decisions, feels put upon by others, gets trapped, has to find a way out.
And yet, I quite liked the film.
I think a great deal of my enjoyment has to do with the fact that Irv never quite denies that he has made these choices. He retains his autonomy, even while at the same time feeling put upon. He understands, from the feet up (as the movie would put it,) that he got himself to this place.
When Irv feels stuck, he looks for the parts he can control. I liked that VERY much. So often people try to solve their problems by forcing others to take certain actions. Irv makes that mistake a couple of times, but mostly he focuses on what he can actually change. This is a key step in maintaining agency. I like seeing how it played out.
I also liked that every character in the film has agency. Even the sketched-in roles had a point of view, an agenda, agency, vibrancy — they all plausibly implied a life outside of the narrative we got to see. The FBI agent’s mother and fiance, Carmine’s wife and kids — yes, they are props in the story of These Dudes. But they are clearly the narrative leads of some other story. And we can see those other stories fluttering around the edges of the narrative we are watching. The characters all have life.
I liked the end. I liked that you win some, you lose some. I liked that some characters learned from their actions, and others clearly did not. I loved, loved, that every ensemble lead character suffered from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, with the possible exceptions of Irv and Sid. But even they waver.
Two other points:
1. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were completely fantastic.
2. Why is it that all of our popular culture images of the 1970s are so sweaty? I asked this on Twitter, and a couple people suggested it’s because we think of the 70s as being always summer, and because of the energy crisis, always un-air-conditioned.
But that only sort of begs the question. Why do we think of the 70s as always summer? Do we think of other decades or cultural time-eras as being specific seasons? I suppose the Great Depression is always winter, maybe? The 1950s? Are they always spring/early summer?
But there’s something about the 70s and sweat that doesn’t look warm and happy and carefree.
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