Producers: Arnon Milchan, Matthew Budman, Anthony Katagas, David O. Russell and Christian Bale Director: David O. Russell Screenplay: David O. Russell Cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Alessandro Nivola, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldaña, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Beth Grant, Colleen Camp, Bonnie Hellman, Max Perlich, Ed Begley Jr., Casey Biggs and Dey Young Distributor: Disney/Twentieth Century Studios
Kind of a mess, but in many respects a quite enjoyable one, David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” can be seen as of a piece with his earlier “American Hustle.” Again the writer-director has taken a historical scandal and turned it into a cinematic pinwheel by adding lots of fictional characters, wild incidents and flamboyant stylistic flourishes. That the recipe doesn’t work as well this time around isn’t for lack of trying.
In “Hustle,” it was the late-seventies Abscam business that Russell ran with; here it’s the so-called Business Plot of the early thirties, disclosed at the time by Major General Smedley Butler, the Maverick Marine who claimed to have been recruited by a group of wealthy industrialists for a coup to overthrow the recently-elected President Roosevelt. (Russell plays an excerpt from Butler’s congressional testimony at the close, accompanied by his recreation of it in split-screen.)
In this wacky telling the conspiracy—the danger, even the reality, of which is disputed by researchers—unfolds through the eyes of three fictional characters who meet in World War I. Two are soldiers—Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a Jewish New York doctor forced to enlist by his father-in-law, who considers him an unsuitable match for his daughter Irma (Andrea Riseborough), and Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), a proud black man. They become friends in the integrated regiment created by General Meekins (Ed Begley, Jr.). When both are wounded, they’re treated by eccentric, vivacious volunteer nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who sweeps them off to Amsterdam, where they enjoy a “Jules and Jim”-like idyll and Valerie arranges for Burt to be fitted with a glass eye by preening British manufacturer Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and his American ornithologist buddy Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon). Then Burt goes back to New York and Harold follows after Valerie disappears.
A couple of decades later Burt, separated from Irma, is working out of a shabby office treating veterans with experimental remedies while Harold has become a slick lawyer. They’re called in by Meekins’ daughter (Taylor Swift) to do an autopsy on her father, whom she suspects of having been poisoned (he was). When she’s then murdered by a scowling killer (Timothy Olyphant) who throws suspicion on them, two dim-bulb cops (Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola) get involved, so they’ll have to do their own investigation to clear themselves by solving the murders.
Their bumbling efforts lead them to wealthy siblings Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his sister Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy), who smooth the way for them to see General Gil Dillenbeck, the Butler stand-in (Robert De Niro), whom the shadowy group called the Circle of Five is trying cajole into their crypto-fascist plot against democracy. He’ll join them in a scheme to expose the culprits behind the conspiracy. But there’s a further wrinkle in that Tom and Libby are also the brother and sister of Valerie, whom they’re keeping a recluse in their mansion because of her medical issues.
If all this sounds terribly confusing, it is, but rest assured that Russell adds to the bewilderment by increasing the number of characters. Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña) is dragged into things by having been Burt’s associate at the Meekins autopsy, and Milton King (Chris Rock) as Harold’s legal partner. The entire affair reaches a climax at a regimental reunion Burt is preparing, where, in addition to him, Harold, Valerie, Dillenbeck, Tom, Libby, Irma and Milton, Paul and Henry reappear (having been revealed as intelligence agents), and Olyphant’s killer will resurface in the flies above the stage, like the assassin in “The Manchurian Candidate.”
This big finale, frankly, is way too long, marked by scads of musical numbers done by regimental veterans and, in terms of the explanation of the plot, climax after climax. Unfortunately it’s reflective of the flaws of the entire movie, which is overstuffed well past the brim.
And yet one can call “Amsterdam” an embarrassment of riches, since there’s much to savor even if the table groans from an excess of goodies. The images are eye-catching, with Judy Becker’s production design, the costumes by J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky, the visual effects supervised by Allen Marris and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography combining to create a visual feast. Russell himself brings a quirky tone to the proceedings, often suggesting a Wes Anderson approach, and Daniel Pemberton adds a jauntily goofy score that complements it; and if editor Jay Cassidy can’t always keep things running smoothly—or make that finale feel less protracted—it’s not really his fault.
Then there’s the start cast. Some make more of an impression than others. As usual, De Niro brings a stentorian solidity to the general (he’s much more imposing than the real Butler), and Rock animation to Harold’s supportive second. Among the others Shannon and Myers fare especially well as the dotty spies, while Malek adds sinister oiliness and Taylor-Joy jittery energy to the entitled Vozes. All the others give their all to Russell’s vision, and their effort is admirable; even Swift manages her small part adequately, though she’s more clothes horse than actress.
The three leads are all fine, with Robbie showing a flair for slapstick and Washington impressively unflustered by everything going on around him. But it’s Bale who stands out. Perhaps it’s the glass eye that gave him the idea of playing Burt as a taller version of Peter Falk, but whatever the reason he nails the impersonation, and the result is a delightful homage to the Columbo star, though there’s a lot of “The In-Laws” in the performance as well. As in “Hustle,” Bale shows himself willing to take big risks for big rewards, and again the choice pays off.
It would have been nice if Russell’s second foray into the loopy semi-historical genre had been as good as the first. But though “Amsterdam” is no “Hustle,” it offers enough incidental pleasures along the way to put it—almost—into the plus column.