American Hustle is not a comedy

If you want a laugh track to some abuse, watch the movie in theaters. If that would disturb you, as it did me, wait until it comes out on DVD, and watch it with a critical eye.

*ATTENTION CONTAINS SOME  SPOILERS*

American Hustle is a movie about two con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get caught by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and are forced to help him stop four white collar crimes as a condition of their release. As they begin investigating their connections to find leads, they discover a local hero and politician (Jeremy Renner) who is incredibly devoted to creating jobs for his community by rebuilding Atlantic City any way he can. Cooper’s character becomes obsessed with the paths down which this operation could lead him, trying to bring in corrupt congressmen and take down the mobsters who would fund the casinos, as well. As Cooper’s character’s power trip reaches new heights, his boss (Louis C.K.) begins to pull back, resisting his childlike tantrums demanding 2 million dollars and fancy hotel rooms for his “operation.” Thus, Cooper’s character ends up assaulting his boss, emasculating him in front of his co-workers and superiors and generally acting like a man-child. He also tries to rape Adams’s character, so there’s that, too.

Thankfully, Cooper’s character almost gets what he deserves in the end, which suggests to me that the people behind this movie had some morals. They clearly thought through the nuances of the characters deeply, so that no characters were all good or all bad; however, for general American audiences, that just doesn’t cut it.

Watching this movie made me incredibly embarrassed to live in this country, not because of the horrendous acts of characters in the movie, but because of the audience’s reaction. As Cooper’s character hit his boss over the head with an old fashioned telephone, pointed a loaded gun at his head, humped him and slapped his butt, the audience roared with laughter. As Cooper’s character defended his actions saying that he was just passionate and filled with energy, I could almost hear the shouts of approval.

The fact that Cooper’s character does not “win” in the end makes me believe that the people behind this movie understood the horrible aspects of Cooper’s character for what they are; however, the audience just didn’t understand them. Perhaps it was just collective lazy thinking, but I think another part is that the media has conditioned people to see characters like Cooper’s as an ordinary male archetype: the man-child who believes that he is entitled to everything that he wants and will stop at nothing to get it. While it seems like the people behind the movie were attempting to satirize this abusive character, the fact that it was presented without any overt questioning until the very end made it difficult for many people to understand it as truly problematic. Audiences love the man-child archetype because it depicts a man who is “brave” enough to never accept any challenges to his masculine power. In our culture, being able to get everything you want is a sign of success. Just look at the glamorization of James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers.

By allowing Cooper’s character’s “antics” to be considered funny rather than offensive, we allow ourselves to see all males who act that way as being in the right. It was only a natural extension of Cooper’s character’s abuse of his boss that he then tried to force himself upon Adams’s character. His defense of that action probably would have been that she was asking for it by provoking him with kisses, despite her clear rejection of his sexual advances. However, the fact that the audience kept laughing at the other abuses in the movie, even after his attempted rape of Adams’s character, suggested that they wrote it off, too, as a fluke or a mere casualty of his “passion” and “dedication.”

It is frightening to believe that we live in a society that commends males for doing whatever they want whenever they want, abusing whoever gets in their way. I challenge anyone who decides to watch this movie to watch it with a critical eye. Do not just laugh because everyone else may laugh. Be aware of any uncomfortable feelings you may have and explore why different scenes were problematic for you. It is only by changing our perceptions about what is acceptable male behavior that we can truly stop the epidemic of violence and abuse in our world.

If you would like to hear more about other aspects of this movie, leave a comment below.

UPDATE: Check out this article from Medium about pretty much exactly Bradley Cooper in this movie.

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