Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Andrea Riseborough, Alessandro Nivola, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift, Robert De Niro
Runtime: 2 hrs 14 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Drug Use & Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: Walt Disney
Opening Day: 6 October 2022
Synopsis: Three close friends find themselves at the center of one of the most secret plots in American history.
‘A lot of this actually happened’, says the opening title card of David O’ Russell’s ‘Amsterdam’. For his first film since 2015’s ‘Joy’, Russell draws on the real-life events of the so-called Business Plot of the 1930s, which saw a cabal of wealthy business executives instigate a veterans-led coup against the government of Franklin D. Roosevelt by aiming to install retired General Smedley Butler as a fascist dictator in the mold of Mussolini and Hitler. The similarities with ‘American Hustle’ are unmistakable, but whereas that Academy Award-nominated film cleverly mixed period whimsy with history lesson, ‘Amsterdam’ feels more like a shaggy dog tale whose pleasures are ultimately intermittent.
In timeline shuffling fashion, we begin in the early 1930s with two former war buddies reunited following the death of an Army general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who commanded their regiment during World War I. Whereas Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a physician who has dedicated his practice to easing the suffering of WWI veterans like himself, his best friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) is a qualified lawyer. It is Harold who approaches Burt to carry out an autopsy on Bill, after the latter’s daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) alleges foul play. Liz’s none-too-accidental death soon after confirms the duo’s suspicions that something is amiss.
But before Burt and Harold can get down to uncovering the dastardly conspiracy, we are treated to a generous backstory of how they had met back in the war. In particular, it was his since estranged wife Beatrice’s (Andrea Riseborough) family who had urged Burt to enlist, in the hopes that his military service would help him overcome his half-Jewish, half-Catholic working-class background; and it was during his tour of duty as a medic for a Black regiment that Burt had met Harold and his post-war legal associate Milton (Chris Rock). While recuperating in a Belgian hospital, Burt and Harold would further meet volunteer nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whose hobby was removing the shrapnel from soldiers wounded in combat and turning them into art.
It is in the titular European city that Burt, Harold and Valerie would enjoy some blissful days of revelry, whereupon they would also make the acquaintance of avid ornithologists Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon), both of whom would play key supporting roles in good time. Alas, their slice of bohemia in the Dutch capital would come to an end with Burt returning to Beatrice and the mutually smitten Harold and Valerie going their separate ways. Only with the death of General Meekins would the trio find their way back together.
Even so, things get plenty complicated with a whole host of players with their own agendas; these include Valerie’s philanthropist brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy), a pair of detectives (Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola) investigating Liz’s untimely death, and last but not least the distinguished General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro) whose testimony is apparently key to exonerating Burt and Harold. It is a mighty crowded ensemble all right, but Russell regular DeNiro is undoubtedly the anchor to the scattershot proceedings, not only because of the gravitas that the veteran actor brings to the role but also how his character is the undeniable moral centre of its otherwise ambiguous otherworldliness.
That Russell has chosen to retell this particular moment in US history, tied intimately to the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, is certainly no coincidence; indeed, the parallels with the current dysfunction witnessed in American politics is sobering and even scary, not least because of similar issues of race, class, social mobility and power. And yet, it is a pity that ‘Amsterdam’ never quite achieves the resonance it should, because Russell is too distracted playing around with genres (from screwball comedy, to crime thriller, to even romance) and devices (from plot fake-outs, to timelines, to shifting narrations) to find sufficient and necessary focus.
To be fair, ‘Amsterdam’ operates in the same mode of controlled chaos as Russell’s earlier films, including ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’ and ‘American Hustle’; but unlike these movies, all that freneticism comes off excessive and overindulgent, so much so that the storytelling loses itself in its own manic and leaves its audience feeling messy and exhausted. There is much period detail to be savoured though, thanks to production designer Judy Becker’s immaculate recreations of ‘30s New York and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous, fluid, sepia-tinged images, and therefore easy to savour for its physical craftsmanship.
So even though it doesn’t reach the heights of Russell’s creative zenith, ‘Amsterdam’ is still fitfully entertaining. For one, the stacked cast is a joy to watch. For another, its exuberance is still infectious, especially in its celebration of love, humanity and kindness amidst the tapestry of life. We’d wished it were a lot more compelling, not least given its topical relevance, but Russell spins too many threads here that he cannot convincingly pull together into a coherent whole. Still, there is no denying the ambition, craft and zeal on display here, and for those reasons, worth this bumpy trip down bohemia.
(Chaotic, messy and unfocused, yet brimming with ambition, craft and zeal, 'Amsterdam' is a star-studded period caper with intermittent but undeniable pleasures)
Review by Gabriel Chong