For somewhat understandable reasons, the filmmakers and studio behind Amsterdam have buried the lede. This period satire is about a group of right-wing greedheads launching a plot to dupe America’s military veterans into overthrowing a properly elected president of the United States and installing a dictator. Depending on who you believe, it’s also what happened in real life in 1933 as well as 2021. That makes David O. Russell’s madcap adventure into the first post-Jan. 6 movie, and despite its moments, it could have been much more of our moment.
The film starts in New York, where Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a cosmetic surgeon with one eye, a suspended medical license, a worrying tendency to dip into his stash of pain medications, and a mission to fix up disfigured World War I veterans like himself. He’s summoned by Army buddy and Columbia-trained lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington) to perform an emergency autopsy on an Army general (Ed Begley Jr.), commissioned by the dead man’s daughter (Taylor Swift), who thinks he was poisoned on his recent trip to Europe. Their client is right, but she herself is murdered while Burt and Harold are telling her this, and her killer (Timothy Olyphant) fingers them for the crime. The fugitives turn to Valerie Vose (Margot Robbie), the nurse with sidelights in art photography and foreign espionage who patched them up during the war and lived a bohemian life with them in the Dutch capital. The three friends investigate the double homicide and find out it’s only the tip of an international conspiracy.
At the center of the plot is a Marine general (Robert De Niro) based on Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, who testified to Congress that big-business CEOs had approached him to lead 500,000 veterans in a coup against President Roosevelt. The film takes more than 90 of its 134 minutes to reach its hook. Before that, Russell throws plot developments and revelations at our heroes that confuse us as much as them, and too often he leaves us wondering what he’s yammering on about instead of drawing us in. Even after the movie reveals its villains, the climactic sequence at a veterans’ reunion drags on forever, and a brawl between our heroes and American Nazis can’t save it.
As in his previous movies, Russell cuts the proceedings with comedy, which here translates to characters singing and falling down for no reason and one guy having a drink tossed in his face by a random passerby. The director’s anarchic energy papers over some cracks, as does his deluxe cast (Mike Myers and Michael Shannon as an odd couple of British and American spy chiefs, Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy as Valerie’s controlling brother and sister-in-law, Chris Rock as Burt and Harold’s soldier friend), but in the context of a detective story, Russell’s lack of focus is just frustrating. Great acting was the distinguishing feature of Russell’s best movies Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. The three leads here aren’t bad, but all of them have been better elsewhere. The interracial romance between Harold and Valerie, which is illegal in America at the time the story takes place, doesn’t pull its weight, either.
Russell has so far escaped the wrath of #MeToo despite allegations of abusing his cast and crew on his movie’s sets and sexually abusing his niece, which is worse than yelling obscenities at Lily Tomlin. This has continued despite his assurances that his mental troubles are all in the past, and Valerie finding out that she’s being poisoned through her psychiatric meds makes me wonder if Russell has gone off his. I detect an off-putting note of self-pity in his identification with De Niro’s character as some misunderstood hero who’s smeared by the press. (The real-life Butler was treated this way because he presented no evidence of the fascist plot, though some of his testimony was later borne out.) The director wants us to root for its heroes to escape America to a place where love and creativity can flourish, and even if you don’t know about Russell’s past, this part of the movie doesn’t land. I do know about it, and I find it hard to take from a guy who I’d say has a 36% chance of going QAnon in the near future. I’m tempted to adopt conservative trolls’ tactics and tell you to see this movie just to own them. I’m better than them, though — I know, not a high bar to clear — so I’m compelled to admit that Amsterdam is done in by its flaws in conception and execution.
Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington. Written and directed by David O. Russell. Rated R.