Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and Taylor Swift are just some of the megastars trying to survive a frantic comedy about fascism in America.
A star-studded new historical comedy that’s at best amusing, harmful at worst, constantly frantically insisting on its own negligible entertainment value while striving to find the beauty in life’s insane tapestry? Correct: David O. Russell is back. And while the unpredictable director’s recent work (“Joy,” “American Hustle”) has been damn enough to dampen enthusiasm for this comeback alone — even without Russell’s various personal controversies — it doesn’t help that his first film is out Coming Seven Years is a wildly over-the-top appeal to “protect kindness” that sounds every bit as forced and hollow as one might expect from someone with such a strong reputation for killing himself.
But David O. Russell lives for chaos. It is his ideal state and favorite subject. ‘Amsterdam’, like all of the director’s films, is clearly the work of someone who searched it should be so; someone, who searched his sepia-toned noir about one of the United States’ most clumsy political conspiracies feels like a humorless farce, a sexless love triangle between “Jules and Jim” and at the same time an innocent refutation of the recent flare-up of American fascism.
This exuberant versatility has become Russell’s trademark over the past two decades, as most of his 21st-century films – beginning and culminating with the marvelous “I Heart Huckabees” – have torn themselves apart in an attempt to convey some measure of divine Pulling togetherness through the frayed quilt of our existence (“When you get that blanket thing, you can relax because everything you could ever want or be, you already have and are”). A worthy subject, sure, but in order to dramatize how everything is connected at the subatomic level, Russell must first coat his films with a superficial layer of mayhem. To hear the beauty in collapse, he must first orchestrate a cacophony of white noise.
Russell’s more “down-to-earth” fare — namely earlier work like Three Kings, but also 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, in which the filmmaker embraced the fast-paced and free-spirited 360-degree style he still employs today — gave him the real world once something like a leg to stand on. However, when it comes to the (even more) boosted likes of his later Jennifer Lawrence collaborations, Russell was responsible for creating the same mess he wanted to clean up, and that inevitably leads to a clusterfuck of bad shtick.
Such is Amsterdam, which swaps Lawrence for the equally playful Margot Robbie and surrounds her with a dozen other of today’s biggest stars, but otherwise continues the director’s recent trend of seeking truth amid the rapids of whitewater (and to fail). from his own bullshit.
“A lot of this really happened,” promises the film’s wry smile on an opening title card (What Did Adam McKay Create?), which proves to be characteristically misleading introduction from a filmmaker no longer able to distinguish between truth and contrivance. It also proves to be a perverse setup for a story that begins with Christian Bale playing someone who clearly never existed. Nobody in the world will leave “Amsterdam” and wonder if Dr. Burt Berendsen — a kindly and zany one-eyed WWI veteran whose wrinkled optimism and frizzy brown hair make it look like he’d strayed from a Coen brothers set — it was an actual person. Willy Wonka was a more believable person.
Less obviously contrived is Burt’s best friend, former war buddy, and perpetually straight man Harold Woodman, Esq. (John David Washington), who calls Burt to a Manhattan funeral home one day in 1933. It appears that the magnanimous general who created Burt and Harold’s mixed-race army regiment has been assassinated, and his daughter – played by Taylor Swift, who acquits herself with aplomb in a brief appearance that will long survive in meme form, after the rest of this movie is forgotten – wants our trusted heroes to do the autopsy.
Chris Rock is in for some reason too, playing perhaps the most overtly “there for some reason” role in a movie that faces stiff competition from Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as two goofy spies, Ed Begley Jr. as Corpse, ex-New York Ranger Sean Avery as a random soldier and Matthias Schoenaerts as the hulking detective (at least Alessandro Nivola, who plays Schoenaerts’ weasel partner, finds a variety of fun reasons to be there every time he appears on screen).
The General’s assassination will emerge as the first domino in a cryptocratic plot to overthrow the American government and replace it with a puppet dictator controlled by a cabal of racist business tycoons – hence our history books remember it as “The Business Plot” before the same methods used to be renamed “Republican Agenda”. But “Amsterdam” can’t fully embrace its destiny as an interwar “American Hustle” until it takes us through an important backstory, and so we travel to 1918, where Burt and Harold find themselves in the loving care of a cute mentally ill named Nurse Valerie Voze (Robbie, serves a well-adapted version of Harley Quinn) after injuries in the front lines.
Valerie and Harold fall in love, which works for Burt because his mindless heart belongs to the WASPy nightmare of a woman he left at home (Andrea Riseborough), and the three relocate to Amsterdam to explore a slice of paradise bohemian and the best years to enjoy their lives. Alas, it’s only a matter of time before reality intervenes and the trio falls apart, a split made all the more unfortunate given that this film actually has a nice little kick in the brief sections where its blissful triumvirate is forced to dally in Dream Life, that they share together.
These characters are destined to reunite more than a decade later when it turns out that Valerie – who has her own backstory – was the one who suggested Burt and Harold for the General’s autopsy, but little of the old magic follows them home. The meager traces of it aren’t enough to give impetus to a convoluted but overly simplistic conspiracy saga that’s just business and not a product.
Some mysterious proto-Nazi guys, represented mostly by Timothy Olyphant’s moustachioed Tarim Milfax, are trying to install the very disinterested General Gil Dillenbeck (a very disinterested Robert De Niro) in the White House, and perhaps at the same time sterilize America’s black population. although that subplot is oddly minimized for something so sinister. Despite Russell’s jam-packed cast — I didn’t even mention that Anya Taylor-Joy plays a pretty wonderful role as Valerie’s aloof sister, that Rami Malek gapes through a few scenes as her rich husband, or that Zoe Saldaña plays Burt’s autopsy nurse crush with a hard-edged appeal that cries out for a better film – there are only a small handful of plausible suspects who could be directing the conspiracy, the details of which are even more vague here than they seem to be in real life.
And the only thing that could foil their evil plan and prove that love will triumph over hate in the end? A mixed race throuple.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
That “Amsterdam” manages to run for 134 minutes without slowing down – despite its wanton confusion of a plot – should be interpreted as a mild warning. Russell gets a lot out of the idea that Burt and Harold are suspects in the general’s murder, but it never feels like either of them is in the slightest bit of danger. Most of the film is devoted to scenes that contain 10 gallons of dialogue poured into thimble-sized story beats, an orgiastic barrage of self-amusing reaction shots, and a rotating voiceover track that’s randomly passed back and forth between characters ( drink Every time Bale says he “followed home the wrong god” and you might be lucky enough to pass out in front of Mike Myers’ whole play about cuckoo birds). Sometimes this strategy can make it feel like Burt, Harold, and Vera share the same thoughts; more often it just feels like they share the same author.
For Russell, this is more of a feature than a bug. For him, everything goes to achieve a certain crazy vibration – a harmonistic singularity that suggests that everything is connected. His supercollider-like films strive to reveal this molecular togetherness by spinning so fast that they eventually blur in focus, and they tend to work best during the stages where raw energy is being catalyzed (or vice versa).
While “Amsterdam” ultimately comes to some very simple conclusions about the power of love and the repeating opera ring cycle of history, it at least manages to stay in Russell’s favorite zone longer (and in a more sympathetic way) than some of his previous films. As dissonant as it might be for a David O. Russell character to preach the virtues of protecting kindness, there’s an undeniable spark that binds Burt, Harold and Vera together – a bond that seems to grow stronger as the film progresses , because it weathers the nonsense around it.
As with any interwar story about the power of friendship, ‘Amsterdam’ knows its victories will be Pyrrhic in nature, but if history repeats itself, it means that our hopes for a better future can repeat itself too. “Do me a favor,” Burt pleads. “Try to be optimistic.” Of course, optimism is the easy part in a movie like this. It’s entertainment that proves elusive.
20th Century Studios is bringing “Amsterdam” to cinemas on Friday 7th October.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/amsterdam-review-david-o-russell-1234766602/ ‘Amsterdam Review: David O. Russell’s Plea for Kindness Rings Hollow