Star-packed bomb "Amsterdam" makes "ensemble" a dirty word
(L-R) Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in a scene from David O. Russell's "Amsterdam."
Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Taylor Swift, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldana, Alessandro Nivola, Matthias Schoenaerts, Andrea Riseborough and Timothy Olyphant. Written and directed by David O. Russell. Opens Friday at theatres everywhere. 134 minutes. 14A
⭐️ ½ stars (out of 4)
David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” is a shaggy dog story that’s more like a dog’s breakfast.
The energetic writer/director has a tale to tell, a cautionary one about the rise of American fascism that resonates with history and today: “A lot of this really happened” a text note states off the top.
Yet Russell doesn’t know or care how to unspool this serious saga without a whole lot of dopey digressions along the way. He crowds the screen with enough A-list talent for an Oscars show, then doesn’t give his stars much to do apart from riffing on multiple genres: everything from screwball comedy to murder mystery to wartime drama to political thriller. Russell makes “ensemble” seem like a dirty word.
The film’s title is a bit of a red herring, since the Netherlands capital city sojourn it refers to — featuring nominal leads played by Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie — doesn’t last that long.
The story begins promisingly enough in the New York of 1933 with a missing eyeball and a dead body. Pain specialist Dr. Burt Berendsen (Bale), also the film’s narrator, explains how he lost his eye and injured his back in France while serving as a soldier in the First World War. He returned to the U.S. determined to help other veterans.
His medical altruism and fondness for pain killers put him at odds with his estranged wife, Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), and her snooty parents (Casey Biggs, Dey Young), who want him nowhere near their profitable Park Avenue clinic.
Enter the suddenly dead body, of former Army general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who commanded the regiment of Burt and his loyal wartime buddy Harold Woodman (Washington). Woodman is now an attorney, as is another war pal, Milton (Chris Rock).
Meekins’ earnest daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) suspects foul play and she wants Burt, assisted by his nurse (Zoe Saldana), to perform an autopsy to confirm it. The play gets fouler as Burt and Harold are obliged to flee a murder scene that was not of their making. This draws the attention of two dogged but incompetent cops, played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola.
Around this time the film jumps back to a 1918 battlefield hospital where Burt and Harold are being treated for their respective wounds by nurse Valerie Voze (Robbie), who is also an artist: she collects shrapnel extracted from flesh to make unique sculptures. (Valerie’s dark hair and unorthodox art suggest she’s modelled on Kiki de Montparnasse, the muse of Dada/surrealist artists in 1920s Paris.)
Valerie, Burt and Harold will soon become a trio of friends, living together and whooping it up in Amsterdam, bringing to mind the triangular affairs of Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” and Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.” The chemistry is there, along with a few chuckles, but we don’t see them enough together to truly make them the three amigos they’re supposed to be.
The Amsterdam interlude also introduces a delightfully droll pair played by Mike Myers and Michael Shannon, who assist with glass eyes — Burt’s artificial orb keeps popping out — and who share a penchant for bird-watching and other avian pursuits.
Confused yet? Hold onto your seats because this bandwagon of boldface has more A-listers to pick up, when the film returns to 1933 New York, this time with all three members of our freewheeling lead trio. Oddly devoted characters played by Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy enter the fray as members of Valerie’s wealthy family who are looking after her for what they claim to be a “nerve disorder.”
We are well into the picture before Robert De Niro finally arrives, playing retired and revered ex-Marine General Gil Dillenbeck, who is inspired by a real wartime hero. Dillenbeck gives “Amsterdam” much needed gravity, as he becomes the focus of American sympathizers of European fascists Hitler and Mussolini. They seek to overthrow the U.S. government and feel Dillenbeck could be a potential ally.
This is the part of the film where the “this really happened” note applies and where historical parallels can be drawn to events captured in the recent Oscar-nominated short “A Night at the Garden,” the documentary account of a 1939 rally of American Nazis in New York.
This latter part of “Amsterdam” should have been the film’s main focus, yet Russell, who loves to jam the frame — witness his earlier “American Hustle” and “I Heart Huckabees” — seems determined to sabotage historical significance and coherent storytelling.
Besides everything else, he introduces two love matches that go nowhere and he tips the secret identities of two characters who might have otherwise have made for a pleasing reveal.
Daniel Pemberton’s cartoonish score further trivializes things, but cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the production team take their tasks seriously, making 1920s Amsterdam and 1930s New York look appropriately lived-in and vaguely menacing.
De Niro is the only other noteworthy person who considers “Amsterdam” to be drama rather than farce. Weirdly enough, it’s his best performance in years. Too bad there’s no Oscar category for “Best Performance in a Bad Movie.” 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)