Perhaps the pithiest way to describe the new serio-comic “Amsterdam” is “a hot mess.”
Star-studded and stuffed with situations, characters and relationships, it starts with a breathless sprint as it introduces character upon character, scenes and settings on top of settings and real life conspiracies woven into fictional ones. And then the breaths turn rasping and gasping as an added onslaught of words and data are unleashed, a voice-over narration layered on top of everything we’re being exposed to, basically all once.
“‘Amsterdam’…it was there all along.”
It’s all bloody exhausting, and pretty much from the start.
David O. Russell’s historical mystery folds a couple of Oscar winners, a handful of the most beautiful and talented women in cinema and American pop culture and a lot of “This really happened” events into a Big Conspiracy yarn set in the world’s first serious flirtation with fascism, the 1930s, when one World War was just enough of a memory that a lot of people who should’ve known better steered us right into another.
And in America, lightly-bloodied but triumphant, veterans including our three heroes contemplate the pathology of those who returned from Europe but “followed the wrong god home.”
Christian Bale is a doctor who lost his eye as a combat medic with the American Expeditionary Force in the Argonne. He served with an African American corps which included a lawyer (John David Washington) and the lawyer’s trusted and more streetwise friend (Chris Rock).
And when Dr. Berendsen and Harold Woodman, Esq. are mangled like thousands of others in the horrific combat of the war’s final year, a French nurse (Margot Robbie) was the one who removed and collected all the bullets and shrapnel from their bodies, befriended the married doc and became the lover of the lawyer as she turned out to be an American socialite named Valerie, and an aspiring avant garde artist intent on turning the spent metal of the World War into tea sets and such.
The three “made a pact” that they would “look out for each other.” The doctor and the lawyer bring this bond home with them, where Doc experiments with pain killers and other unsanctioned ways to help his fellow veterans, the Harold helps them legally and together they run a veterans charity.
Valerie vanishes. Until, that is, the combat comrades find themselves mixed-up in the mysterious death of their racially and morally enlightened commanding officer (Ed Begley Jr.) and his daughter’s (Taylor Swift) fateful effort to find out who or what conspiratorial entity may have played a hand in it.
“Amsterdam” begins with promise and really hits its stride with an exciting finale built around another World War veteran, a celebrated Marine general played by Robert DeNiro.
But man, do this film’s middle acts wear a body out. Timothy Olyphant plays a fanatical hit-man. There’s a grisly autopsy carried out by a nurse (Zoe Saldana) who has to pass herself off as “Portuguese” for the racist medical establishment to let her do what she does best, a couple of bird watching “businessmen” (Michael Shannon and Mike Myers) who are actually spies who may “call on” our heroic trio at some point, in need of assistance, and the imperious and faintly-sinister relatives of rich girl Valerie (Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy).
The cast is almost uniformly impressive, though even they can’t conceal the fact that many scenes and shots seem superfluous to the larger story and not enough of the jokes land.
Washington holds his own with Bale, Robbie and the exquisite comic timing of Chris Rock and Myers.
And one can’t let the presence of Robbie, Saldana, Taylor-Joy and Swift pass unnoticed, as the care with which they’re made up, lit and photographed is a study in how to film gorgeous movie stars — and a singer-songwriter who isn’t much of an actress. Olivia Wilde should call the DP.
The equally-stunning Andrea Riseborough plays the manipulative Anti-Semitic upper class wife that the badly-disfigured doctor tries to come home to. Riseborough steals the movie with just a few scenes and brilliantly-considered gestures, a woman whose family will never “accept” her husband and who has the aura of a wife who’s OK with that and life without the now-damaged spouse she and her imperious father talked into going into combat.
Russell gives Robbie’s Valerie the line about history’s dark passages being a “recurring dream” that the world wakes up to every few decades. That’s the point that he’s getting at here, that we’re teetering on a new dark age with fascists on the rise in Italy, Hungary, Russia, France, Britain, China and America and conspiring to end the Age of Liberal Democracy.
It’s happened before, and it took a “Greatest Generation” to resist it. Now, all it takes is the right media demagogue and the masses are ready to “follow the wrong god home” and right off a cliff.
The racism, white supremacy and amoral, stateless superrich determined to be the only “ruling class” is nothing new, Russell shows us. And neither are the oases which remind people of the possibilities of equality, justice, freedom and free expression. There’s always an “Amsterdam” where we can see the light.
Great message, and damned hopeful. Pity it’s buried in a movie that talks too much, encompasses more than it should and muddies its moral in a convoluted tale with just a smidgen of action and dering do and lots of jokes mixed-in with the forebodings of what happened once happening again.
Russell squandered an “important” story and his access to the best talent and a healthy budget and made something a lot closer to “Joy” and “I Heart Huckabees” than “Three Kings,” or “American Hustle.” He was following “the right god.” He just lost his way more often than not.
Rating: R for brief violence and bloody images.
Cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Shannon, Alessandro Nivola, Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift and Robert De Niro.
Credits: Scripted and directed by David O. Russell. A 20th Century release.
Running time: 2:14