David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” is a star-studded affair that hasn’t exactly been greeted with open arms. More than a few film critics have sauteed the period mystery comedy, calling it “exhausting”, “bloated”, “meandering”, “tedious”, and even “unwatchable”. But a far bigger hurdle than bad reviews is the studio’s bad marketing strategy. They understandably lean on the film’s star wattage. But “Amsterdam” isn’t just some light and jaunty romp. And its true-to-life themes are sure to be lost under the advertising’s heavy coat of studio varnish.
“Amsterdam” is Russell’s first film since 2015 and cast-wise it’s an embarrassment of riches. The film is led by Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Margot Robbie. But then you have a supporting cast that features Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Zoe Saldaña, Taylor Swift, Andrea Riseborough, Timothy Olyphant, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, and Ed Bagley Jr among others. It looks overwhelming on paper. But everyone fits well in their roles, and most are clearly having fun with their characters.
Russell (who also writes the screenplay) bites off a lot in this overly long story about three tight-knit friends in 1930s New York. There’s a murder mystery at its core that blossoms into something bigger and more ambitious. But it’s also a comedy that’s more sly and subtle with its humor than you might expect. In one sense it keeps “Amsterdam” from running over into full-blown farce, but it also keeps it from being as funny as it could have been. Russell plays it too safe, which seems like a missed opportunity.
Yet despite some missteps and miscalculations, I liked “Amsterdam”. Granted, it’s not quite the movie it advertises itself to be (I saw one social media promotion calling it a “thrill ride” – hardly). But it has loads of personality and character. And while Russell overextends his story and wanders off in too many directions, it still holds together nicely and makes for good satire. I also loved its period style and (in certain scenes) swagger. Plus, as someone who loves watching good actors act, this was a feast.
In the waning days of World War I, wounded war buddies Burt Berendsen (Bale) and Harold Woodsman (Washington) meet a nurse, Valerie Voze (Robbie) in a French hospital. As the war comes to an end, the trio become close friends and form a pact during some fun and frolicking in Amsterdam. But their time of carefree bliss eventually comes to an end, and they’re eventually forced to come back to reality (aka America).
Back home and 12 years later, things aren’t as breezy and buoyant as in Amsterdam. Burt (whose disheveled mien and unruly glass eye gives off serious Peter Falk vibes) returned to his wife, Beatrice (Riseborough) and her upscale, status-obsessed parents (they’re the ones who convinced him to go to war in the first place). He becomes a doctor in a struggling practice specializing in cosmetic work for fellow veterans. And he dabbles in creative “medicines” on the side.
Harold graduated from Harvard. But in the racial climate of 1930s America, there weren’t a lot of doors open for a black attorney. So he works with Burt, waiting for opportunities that sadly were still years away. The two lose track of Valerie who ends up with a hereditary nerve disorder (or so she’s told) and kept housebound by her prima-donna brother Tom (Malek) and his controlling wife, Libby Voze (Taylor-Joy).
One day Burt and Harold are approached by Elizabeth Meekins (Swift), the daughter of United States Senator Bill Meekins (Begley Jr). She tells them that her father has died, and she believes he was murdered. She implores Burt and Harold to investigate, starting with a secret autopsy. Normally this is something the pair would immediately turn down. But Senator Meekins was their commanding officer during the war and the one who introduced the two friends. So they reluctantly agree to help Elizabeth.
Rather than spoil things, let’s just say Burt and Harold reunite with Valerie and the trio become prime murder suspects. In their efforts to prove their innocence, they uncover something far more insidious. And along the way they encounter a fun and colorful array characters that includes a vet from their old regiment, Milton King (Rock), two not-so-undercover intelligence agents, Paul Canterbury (Myers) and Henry Norcross (Shannon), a good-hearted pathologist, Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldana), two pulpy detectives Getwiller (Schoenaerts) and Hiltz (Nivola), a ruthless thug, Tarim Milfax (Olyphant), and a highly esteemed general, Gil Dillenbeck (De Niro).
“Amsterdam” certainly has its playful side, but its satirical kick often comes attached to some weighty subjects. Racism, antisemitism, and fascism are all touched on to varying degrees. And while much of the story is pure fiction, there are several things scattered throughout that are based on real-life details, people, or events. Again, I won’t spoil the story by pointing them out, but these give the movie some bite. Sadly, Russell’s approach to storytelling will make separating fact from fiction a chore for some. But I admit, I fell for this messy, off-beat extravaganza. And I think it has a lot more to say than some may give it credit for. “Amsterdam” is out now in theaters.