I spent most of Amsterdam half-invested, wondering what, exactly, David O. Russell was going for in this tonal ten-car pileup. In the first half, he layers bizarre choice onto bizarre choice — Christian Bale doing Wile E. Coyote by way of Wes Anderson. John David Washington, as his sidekick, barely acting. Then, just before the credits roll, Amsterdam suddenly snaps into focus, almost as if this had been the plan all along.
In retrospect it doesn’t seem like it was; more like O. Russell had been noodling around trying to find the melody, and finally did. Amsterdam goes from wacky farce to preachy allegory before finally coming to rest as a sneakily profound riff on finding personal edification, just when it matters. David O. Russell seems like he’s working through it. In the end, aren’t we all?
Amsterdam begins with a title card that reads “some of this actually happened” — one of those cutesy, post-modern artistic responsibility waivers that are somehow still in fashion. Can we be done with these? All stories are a mix of fact and fiction, either be specific about which parts are true and which parts are made up or shut up about it. Stop trying to pre-excuse yourself for story beats that don’t work.
ANYWAY, Christian Bale plays Burt, a kooky doctor with a glass eye and a complicated back brace who works helping WWI veterans like himself to become whole again. John David Washington plays Harold, ostensibly Burt’s lawyer, but, as we soon learn in a flashback, really Burt’s war buddy that he served with in an integrated unit commanded by Ed Begley Jr. After the war, Harold and Burt spent a few years in a bohemian throuple with a louche trust fund hipster named Valerie, played by Margot Robbie in full bombshell mode, which no one can really do like she can. For a time, they all lived together in an artist’s loft in Amsterdam, screwing and drinking and doing art, Weimar-style.
But that was 10 years ago, and eventually reality set in. Now Burt and Harold have been reunited by the death of their commanding officer. His daughter, played by Taylor Swift, hires them to look into the circumstances surrounding it, and just when they start getting the hint that foul play might’ve been involved, they get framed for a crime, and end up in a race against time to clear their names by unraveling a conspiracy that seems to go all the way to the top!
Like Grand Budapest Hotel before it, which was based on the writings of Stefan Zweig (an inter-war writer whose work is some of the most inspiring and heartbreaking stuff you’ll ever read), Amsterdam takes the real-life high romantic drama of the inter-war period (in which unprecedented artistic and sexual freedom eventually collided with totalitarianism on an unprecedented scale) and turns it into something like an arch dinner theater mystery. Every new character seems to be played by an actor more famous than the last, and the general tone is of hyper-real farce. It isn’t entirely believable, but we’re supposed to be okay with that because the actors seem to know it isn’t quite believable and so they’re letting us in on some inside joke. People find this kind of thing insufferably smug and they’re mostly right.
Bale goes silly, while John David Washington’s acting is only perceptible to electron microscopes, with most of the other performances landing somewhere in between (Ed Begley Jr. is also deadpan to the point of affectlessness, and it’s hard to figure to what end). The real standout, oddly, is Alessandro Nivola, who mostly underwhelmed as Dicky Moltisanti in The Many Saints Of Newark, here stealing the show as a dumb cop. Give this guy more comedic roles, please. (Likewise his partner, the never-not-great Matthias Schoenaerts)
Eventually, all these many characters, from Burt’s ruthless socialite wife, played by Andrea Riseborough, and a hero general, played by Robert De Niro, triangulate in a fascist plot afoot in the United States. Amsterdam goes from archly smug to allegorical and preachy, all set to resolve in that most tried-and-true of movie contrivances, The Big Speech That Makes A Difference.
Only, just when you think David O. Russell is going to lean on events of historical import to justify the not-quite-realness of the A-List dress-up party that came before it, O. Russell seems to acknowledge the Big Speeches That Make A Difference don’t really happen in real life. You come to realize that he isn’t making an earnest plea for how and why we should fight fascism; merely trying to work out for himself what actually matters in a world whose stronger currents are largely out of your control.
What he seems to come up with is something like, “some people are assholes, don’t be one. Hang out with your friends, love who you love, and make the art that makes you happy.”
It’s a little schmaltzy, sure, but only in the most innocent, unguarded, universal way. All of a sudden, everything from the title (“Amsterdam,” which is to Amsterdam what Tara is to Gone With The Wind) to the signature line, Harold saying of Burt that “he followed the wrong God home” not only makes sense, but hits like an emotional sledgehammer. And this smug, star-studded, treacly tonal train wreck suddenly feels like a grand slam (I’m mixing metaphors here because it feels like it suits the messy material).
In his typically fumbling, dissembling kind of way, David O. Russell does justice to the world that writers like Christopher Isherwood and Stefan Zweig memorialized in a way that Wes Anderson couldn’t, and plausibly connects it to his home country. Amsterdam is something deep disguised as something shallow.