David O. Russell’s Amsterdam is a lot of movies inelegantly squidged into one — a zany screwball comedy, a crime thriller, an earnest salute to pacts of love and friendship, an antifascist history lesson with fictional flourishes. Those competing strands all have their merits, bolstered by entertaining character work from an uncommonly high-wattage ensemble. But can any film be called satisfying when the storytelling is so convoluted it takes an hour or more to settle on the kind of story it wants to tell, let alone a cohesive tone in which to tell it? Only once Robert De Niro shows up as a distinguished war veteran drawn into a nefarious political conspiracy does momentum kick in.
De Niro has been a regular collaborator of the director since his Oscar-nominated turn in 2013’s Silver Linings Playbook, and it’s great to see the actor bite into a character who plays his cards close to his vest. But he comes along a little too late to rescue this scattershot period piece.
The Bottom Line
More fizz than focus.
Every new movie from Russell now stirs up allegations of his abusive behavior on- and off-set for relitigation on Film Twitter. But that hasn’t hurt his ability to draw top talent. The phalanx of stars will be the main attraction with this long-gestating Fox project, going out through Disney, even if the cautionary note about history repeating itself does not lack for contemporary relevance.
While Russell’s screenplay introduces them in a choppy flashback structure that starts in New York in 1933 before rewinding 15 years, a trio of fast friends forms the story’s core. They are Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a doctor experimenting outside the medical establishment with new pain treatments, particularly for wounded war veterans; his attorney chum Harold Woodman (John David Washington); and wealthy artist Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie).
They met in France in 1918, while serving in World War I. Burt was urged to enlist by the blue-blood family of his since-estranged wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough). Her snobbish parents (Casey Biggs, Day Young) felt that becoming a war hero might paper over his half Jewish, half Catholic working-class background and make him a better fit for the family’s Park Avenue medical practice.
An unprejudiced man of principle, Burt agreed to serve as the medic for a Black regiment so ostracized by their white American comrades that they were forced to wear French uniforms and fight with the European Allies. Both Harold and his post-war legal associate Milton (Chris Rock) served in that regiment, the 369th. Valerie was volunteering as a nurse back then, removing bullets and shrapnel from soldiers wounded in combat and transforming the metal into Surrealist art that recalls the work of Man Ray and others.
Their friendship was at its sweetest in Amsterdam, where Valerie introduced them to Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon), intelligence officers for the British and American governments, respectively, as well as ornithological enthusiasts thrown out of the international bird -watchers society for stealing eggs from the nests of near-extinct species. Canterbury also manufactures glass eyes, allowing him to provide a replacement for the eye Burt lost in combat.
All this might seem a fussy overload of background detail, and indeed, the movie often feels like it’s piling on eccentricities in a bid to out-quirk Wes Anderson. The bond uniting Burt and Harold and Valerie is platonic, although tinged by hesitant romance between the latter two. But Russell’s screenplay is too manic to establish the three-way union forged during the Amsterdam idyll as the film’s true heart, despite its title.
The story becomes even busier with the 1933 plot, which bolts out of the gate when well-heeled mystery woman Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) contacts Burt and Harold to ask for their help. She’s suspicious about the death of her father, the beloved former Army general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who oversaw the 369th and who died under murky circumstances during a recent return passage by ship from Europe. The general was scheduled to be a guest speaker at an upcoming New York veterans’ reunion gala.
The Meekins development ushers in autopsy nurse Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña), a love interest for Burt, even if he remains hung up on the unlikely chance of a reconciliation with Beatrice.
In case the character gallery isn’t already crowded enough for you, there’s also Valerie’s philanthropist brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). It won’t even have registered to most viewers that Valerie drifted out of Harold and Burt’s orbit after the war until they turn up at the Voze mansion while investigating Meekins’ death and find her heavily medicated for a supposed nervous disorder.
A related crime that occurs early on puts Burt and Harold on the radar of fellow WWI vet Detective Lem Getweiler (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his dimwit flat-footed partner Det. Hiltz (Alessandro Nivola).
I confess I found all this messy and exhausting until Burt and Harold’s investigation leads them to Meekins’ army buddy General Gil Dillenbeck (De Niro), living a quiet life in the leafy suburbs with his droll, doting wife (Beth Grant). Inspired by Armed Forces legend Major General Smedley Butler, who at the time of his death in 1940 was the most decorated US Marine in history, Dillenbeck provides a welcome anchor to the story, while De Niro’s stern authority in the role helps whip the wandering tone. into line.
At the same time Burt and Harold are wooing Dillenbeck to speak at the gala, he’s being courted as a potentially influential ally by a shadow group of heavyweight American businessmen from various fields of power, whose lack of faith in the current White House administration has them orchestrating sinister takeover measures.
That American conspiracy plot is rooted in history, tied to the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany; it’s a fascinating story, withstanding Russell’s efforts to kill it with over-embellishment. The writer-director claims the film’s genesis dates back before the recent resurgence of the White Supremacist movement, the swirl of QAnon lunacy and far-right attempts to undermine the democratic integrity of the American government. But the parallels with our current reality are unmistakable, while the acknowledgment of shameful footnotes such as forced sterilization clinics touches on the evil of racial “cleansing.”
Although Amsterdam maintains a stubbornly hopeful belief that goodness will prevail, the film is also realistic about the resilience of hate in our political culture and the fact that the deep-pocketed instigators of jackboot menace are rarely punished. It makes for a stirring final act, even if the sobering message doesn’t always sync up with Russell’s chaotically cartoonish approach — a mercurial divide mirrored in Daniel Pemberton’s score, which veers between high intrigue and whimsy.
In terms of physical craftsmanship, the film is polished, with production designer Judy Becker recreating 1930s Manhattan on the Paramount New York backlot as well as at various Los Angeles historical landmarks. The costumes by JR Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky are finely detailed, with special kudos to Valerie’s knockout beaded gown for the gala. And cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki brings agility, textured light, rich sepia tones and invigorating Dutch angles to the visuals.
But this is primarily a character-driven movie, even if that field has so many people jostling for space that the material might have been better suited to limited-series treatment. Some of the performances don’t have much scope to stretch beyond caricature, but among the secondary characters that make an impression are Malek’s Tom Voze, an oily balance of charm and creepiness; Taylor-Joy’s similarly two-faced Libby, a climber who gets amusingly giddy around De Niro’s general; Saldaña, wise and grounded as Irma, casually discussing the finer points of love over a corpse; and Riseborough, a coddled Daddy’s girl still struggling to reconcile her affections with familial expectations.
As for the central trio, Washington exudes an easy charisma that hasn’t always been apparent in his previous roles, while Robbie melds old-fashioned movie-star glamor with modern intelligence, her bohemian spirit making her credible as a rebellious heiress, an idiosyncratic artist and a woman whose heart operates by its own rules. Valerie believes in love and art and kindness, making her the movie’s unofficial mascot.
The nominal lead role, however, is Burt, if only because of his disproportionate share of blathery monologues. Crowned with a crop of wild curls, Bale takes full advantage of the unusual assignment of playing a good-hearted, ebullient type, his generous nature in direct defiance of his misfortunes. The actor gets to show off a flair for physical comedy, whether Burt is passing out mid-sentence from experimental pain-killer doses or struggling to keep his eyes moving in the same direction. That jittery gaze extends to the movie itself, making Amsterdam a patchy entertainment.