Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie shine in David O Russell's starry screwball period comedy, crime caper and history lesson all in one.
October 05, 2022
There's only one Wes Anderson, but there's a litany of wannabes. Why can't David O Russell be among them? Take the first filmmaker's The Grand Budapest Hotel, mix in the second's American Hustle and that's as good a way as any to start describing Amsterdam, Russell's return to the big screen after a seven-year gap following 2015's Joy — and a starry period comedy, crime caper and history lesson all in one. Swap pastels for earthier hues, still with a love of detail, and there's the unmistakably Anderson-esque look of the film. Amsterdam is a murder-mystery, too, set largely in the 1930s against a backdrop of increasing fascism, and filled with more famous faces than most movies can dream of. The American Hustle of it all springs from the "a lot of this actually happened" plot, this time drawing upon a political conspiracy called the White House/Wall Street Putsch, and again unfurling a wild true tale.
A Russell returnee sits at the centre, too: Christian Bale (Thor: Love and Thunder) in his third film for the writer/director. The former did help guide the latter to an Oscar for The Fighter, then a nomination for American Hustle — but while Bale is welcomely and entertainingly loose and freewheeling, and given ample opportunity to show his comic chops in his expressive face and physicality alone, Amsterdam is unlikely to complete the trifecta of Academy Awards recognition. The lively movie's cast is its strongest asset, though, including the convincing camaraderie between Bale, John David Washington (Malcolm & Marie) and Margot Robbie (The Suicide Squad). They play pals forged in friendship during World War I, then thanks to a stint in the titular Dutch city. A doctor, a lawyer and a nurse — at least at some point in the narrative — they revel in love and art during their uninhabited stay, then get caught in chaos 15 years later.
Amsterdam begins in the later period, with Burt Berendsen (Bale) tending to veterans — helping those with war injuries and lingering pain, as he himself has — without a medical license. He once had a Park Avenue practice, but his military enlistment and his fall from the well-heeled set afterwards all stems from his snobbish wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) and her social-climbing (and prejudiced) parents. As he did in the war, however, Burt aids who he can where he can, including with fellow ex-soldier Harold Woodman (Washington). That's how he ends up lending a hand (well, a scalpel) to the well-to-do Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift, Cats) after the unexpected death of her father and their old Army general (Ed Begley Jr, Better Call Saul). The bereaved daughter suspects foul play and Burt and Harold find it, but with fingers pointing their way when there's suddenly another body.
Two police detectives (The Old Guard's Matthias Schoenaerts and The Many Saints of Newark's Alessandro Nivola), both veterans themselves, come a-snooping — and Burt and Harold now have two tasks. Clearing their names and figuring out what's going on are intertwined, of course, and also just the start of a story that isn't short on developments and twists (plus early flashes back to 1918 to set up the core trio, their bond, their heady bliss and a pact that they'll keep looking out for each other). There's a shagginess to both the tale and the telling, because busy and rambling is the vibe, especially with so much stuffed into the plot. One of Amsterdam's worst traits is its overloaded and convoluted feel, seeing that there's the IRL past to explore, a message about history repeating itself to deliver along with it, and enough mayhem to fuel several romps to spill out around it. The pacing doesn't help, flitting between zipping and dragging — and usually busting out the wrong one for each scene.
Among all of the above, there's also no shortage of characters; that lengthy list of well-known names has to get up to something, and that jam-packed story has to get as many cogs whirring as possible. Valerie Voze (Robbie) sweeps back in just as pandemonium kicks in, under her brother Tom (Rami Malek, No Time to Die) and his wife Libby's (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Northman) watch. Old war buddy Milton King (Chris Rock, Spiral: From the Book of Saw) warns Burt and Harold about helping Liz from the start, but autopsy nurse Irma St Clair (Zoe Saldana, The Adam Project) — who Burt is visibly fond of — dutifully assists. Also popping up: celebrated army buddy General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro, The War with Grandpa), as well as intelligence officers Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers, The Pentaverate) and Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon, Bullet Train).
Russell uses his supporting players to inject as many quirks and as much energy as he can, including via Canterbury and Norcross' cover as purveyors of glass eyes — something that Burt needs, in dark hazel green — and their keen and genuine interest in birdwatching as a hobby. Those and other eccentricities are also sprinkled around heartily as flavour, setting up and deepening the madcap mood with more than a tad too much force, particularly given that the score by Daniel Pemberton (See How They Run), roving and Dutch-tilting cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Song to Song), and intricate production and art design more than do their showy and flamboyant part. Still, there's little faulting the spirited actors circling around Bale, Washington and Robbie — Malek, Saldana, Riseborough and De Niro especially — or that lead threesome. Whenever Amsterdam lags or rushes, the performances bring viewers in. Alongside Bale's engaging sense of comedy, Washington wears understated charm as well as a suit, and Robbie is just as charismatic playing free-spirited yet tenacious.
Lubezki's floating lensing truly is magnetic; if ever given the option to go large or go home, Russell is rarely known for holding back or getting his collaborators to. The filmmaker is fond of idealistic protagonists making their way through a trying world with their sizeable personalities, hopes and hearts shining bright, recognisably so — and contemplating what his boisterous bounces through fictionalised/dramatised blasts from the past say about America today. Being aware of how quickly fascism can infiltrate, and via whom, isn't a new or novel message for 2022. Amsterdam is never as simplistic in stating the obvious as Don't Look Up was about climate change, though, and it isn't patronising, insulting or irritating, thankfully. It's no The Grand Budapest Hotel or even American Hustle, either, but worse can happen, a notion that the screwball flick's characters keep learning.
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