‘Amsterdam’ review: David O. Russell’s messy historical farce

The title of Amsterdam, the typically busy and confusing new film written and directed by David O. Russell, refers to the events of a memorable Dutch idyll in 1918 towards the end of the First World War. The city of Amsterdam becomes a temporary sanctuary and playground for two wounded American soldiers, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington), and a nurse, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who oversees their recovery. French New Wave may be decades away, but there’s an invigorating pinch of Truffaut energy (but really a true friend) in this process. For a few tender, spirited moments, you might be reminded of Jules and Jim, or maybe Godard’s Band of Outsiders, even when Burt’s shattered face is wrapped in bandages, or when Valerie, an aspiring Dadaist, sculpts bloody bullets and Shrapnel she pulled from her patients’ wounds.

Russell himself took the carnage of war to the aesthetic extremes in 1999’s “Three Kings,” when he turned his camera into an X-ray and showed us – in insane, gut-wrenching detail – what a bullet can do to the human body. While offering its own lovingly detailed glimpses of torn flesh and lingering scars, ‘Amsterdam’ seems rather reluctant to delve too deeply into its characters, physically or otherwise. Like Russell’s glorious ’70s caper American Hustle (2013), the film is a roving piece of zeitgeist and a madcap history lesson, a parade of hidden motifs and wily switcheroos loosely inspired – and only just held together – by real world events. (He also shares a few talented Russell regulars with this film, including production designer Judy Becker and editor Jay Cassidy.)

But unlike “Hustle,” “Amsterdam” only finds the moment-to-moment comic momentum — or bittersweet sense of longing — that would give these characters and their absurd shenanigans the deeper human resonance it’s clearly aiming for. What the film offers instead is plenty of superficial frenetics, executed in a now ritualistic Russell mode of controlled chaos that mostly turns creaky mechanical. There’s a flashback juggling structure, a large cast that seems to multiply by the minute, and a lot of drunken and messy camerawork (vaguely recognizable as that of the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki) dancing its way through scene after scene of wildly choreographed action .

Four men and a woman in period clothing stand around a table with stacks of papers and books.

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon in the movie Amsterdam.

(Merie Weismiller Wallace / 20th Century Studios)

This action begins in New York in 1933; The interwar period is drawing to a close, and beneath the bustling city noise and the tones of Daniel Pemberton’s airy, charming score, whispers of unrest can be heard. It’s not the first time Burt, a doctor, and Harold, a lawyer, team up to investigate the sudden death of an Army general, Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who commanded her regiment during World War I. Taylor Swift dives for makes a suitably quick cameo appearance as Meekins’ daughter Liz, who hangs around just long enough to voice her tear-streaked suspicions of foul play before leaving it to the obstinate Burt and Harold to figure out what’s going on.

Thus begins a raggedly planned crime thriller, which the film approaches with a sometimes charming, sometimes tiring and slightly Raymond Chandler-esque restraint. Unsurprisingly, Russell fits in as many odd shakes and detours as possible, including an impromptu autopsy (made bearable by Zoe Saldaña as the nurse who stole Burt’s heart), a few violent ambushes, and a chilling birdwatching talk or two. (Michael Shannon and Mike Myers emerge as charming amateur ornithologists, although, like almost everyone here, there’s a little more to their identities than meets the eye.) Along the way, Russell slides into this crucial review of the year 1918: We see Burt, who is part Jewish, being shipped off to war by his status-conscious wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough) and her relatives, whose anti-Semitism is as evident as their Park Avenue address. Burt becomes a medic with a unit modeled after the famous 369th Infantry Regiment, primarily taking care of black soldiers like Harold, who are shunned by their white comrades.

For all the fleeting randomness of what happened in “Amsterdam,” there is nothing random about the lifelong friendship that develops between Burt and Harold, both of whom bleed in the service of a racist country that despises them. (Burt even loses an eye and will spend much of the story plugging and unplugging a glass — an over-the-top bit that nonetheless packs a metaphorical punch to a film that’s about what you see isn’t always about to trust.) The two men are sent to the hospital in Paris, where they meet the gorgeous Valerie, and then it’s on to those blissful days of recovery and partying in Amsterdam. Here the film briefly spreads its wings, animated by the moodiness of the central performances – Robbie’s spirited wit, Washington’s seductive coolness, Bale’s big heart and frizzy hair – and by a freewheeling sense of la vie boheme Probability. For a few moments, it feels like the film really could go anywhere.

A man and two women in period clothing look offstage and appear confused.

Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie in the movie Amsterdam.

(20th Century Studios)

But this feeling can’t last. Burt reunites with the dreadful Beatrice in New York, infatuated Harold and Valerie part ways, Amsterdam becomes a distant memory, and Amsterdam itself crashes to earth. Back in 1933, Russell tries to keep the spirits up and the narrative engine going, though most of the time it falters. Burt and Harold’s investigation unearths other supporting cast, including Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy as a wealthy, talkative couple, and Matthias Schoenaerts and the memorably testy Alessandra Nivola as two nosy cops. (I’m still trying to analyze Chris Rock’s narrative function, or at least figure out why the actor — reportedly so funny on set that Bale had to dodge him to stay in character — feels so wasted here.) Amidst these and others Complications , our heroes will uncover the roots of a sinister conspiracy hatched by industrialists bent on overthrowing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and hastening the rise of fascism across Europe and beyond.

“A lot of this actually happened,” the script explains at the outset, using the kind of cheeky disclaimer language (similarly used in “American Hustle”) that allows a film to pat itself on the back for its partial accuracy and its bold deviations from the historical record. The story comes to life – and takes on a real moral focus – once Robert De Niro emerges as the respected General Gil Dillenbeck, a fictional deputy for Major General Smedley Butler, who ultimately unveils the so-called business lot. Yet historical accuracy in Russell’s inverted cosmos is only one measure of veracity: if liberal despair has long been his thematic leitmotif (particularly in his insane 2004 farce I Heart Huckabees), here it is the many more recent and enduring ones Threats to global democracy that don’t make him wring his hands too subtly.

That gives “Amsterdam” some currency in a world still reeling from the presidency of Donald Trump and the concomitant rise of far-right politicians around the world. But there’s an agonizing half-heartedness in these offers for topicality and something less than conviction in the film’s semi-sweet encouragement for optimism in the face of growing danger. This isn’t the first (or likely last) Russell entertainment to pull its characters back from the brink of unfathomable chaos, or encourage its characters and audience to give peace, love, and understanding a chance. But if the memory of Amsterdam hovers over Burt, Harold and Valerie like a beacon of happier, more innocent times, then “Amsterdam” itself is another bittersweet callback, a reminder – and, only sporadically, a recovery – of a filmmaker’s lost vitality.


Valuation: R, for brief violence and gory images

Duration: 2 hours, 14 minutes

To play: Begins October 7th in general release

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-05/amsterdam-review-bale-robbie-russell ‘Amsterdam’ review: David O. Russell’s messy historical farce

Sarah Ridley

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