David O. Russell’s Amsterdam exasperates more than it fascinates. Opening with the tagline “A lot of this actually happened”, the brief explorations of American history between the World Wars hint at a compelling narrative. Wanting to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole afterwards doesn’t necessarily make for a gratifying experience.
Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a member of New York high society through marriage. His snooty in-laws and high maintenance wife (Andrea Riseborough) ship him off to what will become World War I in 1918. Under the command of the kindly Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), the good doc practices his skills for an all black regiment. They must wear French uniforms since the American forces aren’t integrated. That’s a part that actually happened. Burt makes fast friends with Harold Woodsman (John David Washington). They fight together and are seriously wounded together. Burt is given a glass eye that’s often used for screwball comedy effect. Their injuries introduce them to peculiar nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie), who takes the soldier’s battle scars (such as the metal embedded in their flesh) and turns it into surrealistic art. Burt, Harold, and Valerie form a close bond including the romantic sort for the latter two. The trio live a joyous existence in the title city until Burt returns to the Big Apple. Harold eventually follows suit to become an attorney. The men stay friends and colleagues while Valerie’s whereabouts are unknown.
Fifteen years later, the U.S. is in a depression. Our two New Yorkers have an even more pressing issue. Former war commander Meekins (now a Senator) turns up dead and mysteriously so. His daughter Elizabeth (Taylor Swift, in a performance that will surely generate memes) enlists dad’s former soldiers to investigate. This snooping leads to a vast government conspiracy – some of which falls under the actually happened headline. The case additionally leads them back to Valerie and an all-star cast beyond Bale, Washington, and Robbie.
Chris Rock is a member of the French uniformed clad force. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers are intelligence officers amusingly masquerading as bird experts. Zoe Saldana, in the picture’s most underdeveloped role, helps perform autopsy work and is a potential love interest for Burt. The most intriguing character is General Gill Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), a combat hero being recruited for fascist propagandist purposes. Russell’s screenplay gives De Niro a noteworthy role to play with (this is the fourth collaboration between them). The legendary actor has done some of his finest 21st century work with the filmmaker.
The political potboiler aspects kick into gear when Dillenbeck pops up for the second half. That’s when Amsterdam improves. The first half feels like Russell’s attempt to do a Wes Anderson or Coen Bros type whimsical comedy and he fails the test. There’s a lot of characters crowding the scene. Rami Malek is an affluent textile magnet with connections to Valerie. Anya Taylor-Joy is his wife, who has a funny fangirl crush on Dillenbeck. Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts are detectives assigned to track the lead trio.
Once Russell gets to what Amsterdam is really about (with some unmistakable current events overtones), I realized lots of these famous faces and subplots could’ve been jettisoned for a more focused approach. Of all the names, Bale (always committed) and De Niro come out best. The director’s eye for the solid material keeps getting dislodged – like Burt’s fake one. This makes it questionable as to whether it’s worth seeing. More of the stuff that actually happened and not the forced whimsy would have been a reasonable start.
**1/2 (out of four)