In the 1930s, three friends witness a murder, are framed for it, and uncover one of the most outrageous plots in American history.
David O. Russell’s first film since 2015’s ‘Joy’ is another star studded affair in the vein of ‘American Hustle’, that attempts to explore a foiled plot from the 1930s where a group of fascists, inspired by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, attempted to put a dictator in the White House. It is a story outline that should make for great entertainment, but it becomes clear fairly early on that Russell doesn’t know what type of film he wants to make, and the end result is that ‘Amsterdam’ is muddled and tonally all over the place.
The premise centres on three friends/acquaintances who met during the First World War and who find themselves reunited several years later when they become embroiled in a murder mystery case after their former army general turned senator turns up dead. During his autopsy Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) discovers he’s been poisoned and things take an even stranger turn when the senator’s daughter (a bizarrely cast Taylor Swift) is also murdered, with the killer attempting to frame Burt and his lawyer and fellow war veteran Harold (John David Washington) with her murder. This leads the two men down a conspiratorial rabbit hole where they start to uncover the fascist plot, but just as we start to get interested in the main part of the story, we have an extended flashback sequence to how Burt and Harold met, and how an encounter with a nurse (Valerie, played by Margot Robbie) led them all to live for some time in Amsterdam (hence the title). I really can’t get my head around what Russell is trying to do here, and the best description I’ve read of the film so far comes from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw who describes the movie as ‘exhaustingly wacky’ – a perfect phrase for this material.
Thankfully there are some good elements here and it gets particularly interesting once Robert De Niro appears, as another former general being sought out to head up the fascist groups plot. De Niro is often criticised (justifiably) for his poor acting choices in the past couple of decades, but he has and continues to produce some of his best late period work with David O. Russell. I was less impressed with Bale who plays Burt with some incredibly annoying mannerisms, although perhaps that is more a symptom of the screenplay which does seem intent to add Wes Anderson-esque quirk to every single character – even those who pop up for a couple of scenes (hello Mike Myers!). I think ultimately the problem with ‘Amsterdam’ is that the topic doesn’t really work as a comedy-drama and would have worked better as an outright thriller – in that respect it reminded me of a film like ‘The Monument’s Men’ which also tried to straddle different tones in a serious setting with equally muddled results.
‘Amsterdam’ isn’t a total bust and it held my attention whilst shedding light on an interesting piece of American history (however accurate this telling may be), but it’s particularly disappointing because this could, and should, have been so much better.
Directed By: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Andrea Riseborough, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola and Rami Malek