Director/Screenwriter: David O Russell
With: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anna Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro…
Now out in theaters nationwide
Two World War I veterans are framed for the murder of an upper class lady in 1930s New York and, trying to prove their innocence, become embroiled in a political conspiracy. Russell’s ambitious film mixes genres, with an equally mixed result.
With Amsterdam, we’ve arrived in the fall of mid-budget movies before the franchise tank floods cinemas for the Christmas blockbuster season. It’s a beautifully shot film, the details of the set and costume design endless, kept in tones of reds and browns, with incredible detail. The cast is the crème de la crème of what Tinseltown has to offer, and the acting is solid from everyone, throughout.
David O Russell is nothing if not ambitious, setting the film in the lower strata of society among war veterans in New York, against a backdrop of social and racial inequality, then tackling topics ranging from the rise of fascism American to forced sterilization, white supremacy, criticism of capitalism, even matricide. Formally, the film plays with a broken timeline, skipping back and forth without shock, covering a lot of narrative ground.
Amsterdam begins in New York, introducing us to Bale’s wounded Dr. Berendsen, nursing the unlucky war veterans, self-medicating and quickly getting drawn into what appears to be a conspiracy by his friend, lawyer Harold Woodman (Washington). They are hired by Liz Meekins (a brief but enjoyable cameo from Taylor Swift) to investigate if her father, Berendsen and Woodman’s former wartime general, was poisoned. Liz Meekins is murdered soon after, and Berendsen and Woodman find themselves on the wrong side of a police investigation.
A flashback to the war, where Berendsen and Woodman make a pact to take care of each other, end up injured in a hospital, their wounds treated by Valerie (Margot Robbie), an artist, who takes them both in Amsterdam, where they briefly live happily together in the post-war elation of a libertine milieu.
Back in New York, the plot turns and picks up speed as Berendsen and Woodman, soon reunited with Valerie, find themselves entangled in an even bigger conspiracy which they uncover for the rest of the film, aided by de Niro, a another general. The story riffs on the Business Plot, a moment in American history that could have led to a coup, vaguely like free jazz with historical facts.
The film is a strange mixture; slimy comedy that doesn’t ignite properly, a murder mystery that’s a plot but is otherwise inconsequential (reminiscent in detail and time frame of a bit of Gosford Park), a political plot without the thriller . His ambition to do all of these things comes his own way, creating good times, but never landing anything right, feeling indecisive. Lightness is where depth should be; there are a lot of war veterans singing in this movie, and the thinly veiled contemporary critiques of capitalism and police brutality are on the nose and add nothing more than to make the movie heavy where it should not be, didactic and preachy.
Go for the acting – the ensemble cast delivers rock-solid performances of characters reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s neuroticism without the manners, Rami Malek delivering the standout performance with a star-studded transatlantic accent from silent cinema to walkie-talkie. As an ensemble cast, they only gel in spots; as the comedy duo Bale and Washington sometimes work, Margot Robbie adds her signature dazzle.
The overall result is uneven. It’s a pleasant film at times, ambitious but not perfectly executed, charming but not particularly moving, superficial. The plot the characters uncover seems too big for them to get involved in, lacking credibility. He’s fun in places and passes the runtime quickly, but remains a curious mix of things he wants to do and only partially achieves.
All the words of Mario Rauter, you can find his archives here.