‘Amsterdam’ review: A madcap mystery with many whirring parts
By Manohla Dargis
For much of “Amsterdam,” the latest David O. Russell Experience, the movie enjoyably zigs and zags, rushing here and there, though sometimes also just spinning in place. It’s a handsome period romp, a 1930s screwball pastiche filled with mugging performers who charm and seduce as they run around chasing down a mystery, playing detective, tripping over their feet and navigating an international conspiracy that is best enjoyed if you don’t pay it too much attention — which seems to be the approach that Russell himself has taken.
Like all of Russell’s movies, this one is by turns loosey-goosey and high strung. At its center are three American comrades who met in Europe during World War I, formed a tight friendship and — as you see in an extended flashback — lived for a while in Amsterdam, where they recovered (more or sometimes less) from the war and rhapsodically played bohemians until reality called them back home. A dozen or so years and much personal drama later, it’s 1933, and the three have settled into their respective lives. And then Taylor Swift pops up in a fetching hat and red-alarm lipstick, sending everyone and everything scrambling.
The pieces click into place with Burt (Christian Bale), a down-and-out doctor with dubious habits who announces that he lost an eye in France. That’s also where he met a nurse, Valerie (Margot Robbie), and found his best friend, Harold (John David Washington), now a lawyer with a healthy practice and endless patience. Soon, the men are roped into an intrigue via Swift’s Liz, one of those mysterious dames who always stir up trouble. Her father has died under suspicious circumstances, and she’s enlisted Harold for help, which is why Burt soon performs an autopsy alongside Zoe Saldana’s Irma, another Florence Nightingale.
Bale also starred in Russell’s 2013 neoscrewball “American Hustle,” a dizzily funny comedy set mostly in the 1970s about a quartet of scammers. For that film, Bale’s good looks were obscured by a furry beard, a monumental gut and a doleful comb-over; for his role here, the actor has slimmed down and effectively come out of hiding, so you can see the planes shifting under his narrow, expressive face. Burt has a small web of scars under one eye and a nest of hair that at times rises to Barton Fink-esque tumescence, and while he slouches and hunches a lot, it’s the face that draws you in with its insistent brow-furrowing, head-bobbing and jaw-dropping.
It’s a suitably showy performance (with an accent that’s pure old-studio cabby) for a brash movie with many whirring parts. If you spend a lot of time scanning Bale’s face, noting how it slackens and tightens, it’s partly because the movie keeps inviting you to do so. It’s an engaging landscape, certainly, and you can feel Russell’s affection for the character (and actor) every time the camera cozies up to him. There’s feeling in Burt’s ravaged countenance, sadness and bewilderment and dark shadows, too. He has been wounded both in battle and in life, you are regularly reminded, even as the movie barrels deeper into nonsense.
“Amsterdam” is a funny movie, though more curious than laugh-laced, despite some energetic slapstick and soft-landing jokes. The humor can feel strained and overly worked to no particular end, as when Mike Myers and Michael Shannon pop up as a pair of tag-teaming spies. Like Robert De Niro’s upstanding, big-daddy general, who enters late to help tie up the messy loose ends, the spies belong to the least satisfying part of the movie, the political intrigue that ensnares Burt, Harold and Valerie. A lot of this really happened, the movie announces early, yet while that’s eye-poppingly true it tends to feel irrelevant.
That truth claim reads almost identically to the one that introduces “American Hustle,” which was inspired by the Abscam scandal, a bizarre episode dating back to 1978 involving corrupt American politicians, fake Arab sheikhs and a con man enlisted by the FBI. The historical chapter thwat “Amsterdam” borrows from isn’t, oddly enough, as well known, but is profoundly more harrowing because it involves a 1930s fascist plot by wealthy businessmen to take over the United States. Yet if Russell was drawn to this material because of the more recent, terrifying threats to American democracy, neither his heart nor his head ever feel genuinely in it.
What fires up Russell in “Amsterdam” and brings out his best is everything involving love and camaraderie, particularly when Burt, Harold and Valerie were young and aglow with possibility. In the unhurried flashback that traces their friendship, Russell evades the horrors of war to instead focus on the characters’ joyfulness, the infectious pleasure that they take in one another’s company and the fast-deepening romance between Harold and Valerie, which both lights them up and appreciably warms the movie. Bathed in soft, caramel tones and at times photographed in radiant close-up, Robbie and Washington have rarely looked more beautiful or conveyed as much visceral sensuality as they do here — they’re an electric duet.
Once the action returns to 1933, alas, the movie sags despite the persistent frenetic action. Characters continue entering and exiting as the low-angled camera zips along. (The cast also includes Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock and a sharp, amusingly clenched Andrea Riseborough.) A gun is fired, jaws socked, someone screams. Throughout, Russell keeps going and moving, moving and going, but the momentum never builds the way it should, and the big reveal lands flat partly because he never seems taken with the history he’s latched onto or comfortable with its heaviness. Or perhaps it’s the contemporary parallels that make him uneasy and why, again and again, he returns to the faces and filigree that he gets just right.
Rated R for autopsy, murder, the usual. Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes. In theaters.