I was charmed by ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and was totally floored by ‘American Hustle’ and so I’m very interested in David O. Russell’s work before I found out about his controversial working habits and problematic personal life. Despite what I know of David O. Russell behind the camera, when I saw the cast list for this latest film ‘Amsterdam,’ I was very much intrigued by the movie. I’d watch anything with Margot Robbie or Christian Bale and then you add Anna Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, and Robert De Niro to the list and it’s just too good to pass up.
The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek mention that the events of the movie “actually happened” and the story brings us to America in 1933 where we are introduced to Christian Bale’s one-eyed doctor and veteran of World War I Burt Berendsen and his best friend, lawyer and also WWI veteran Harold Woodsman, played by John David Washington. Burt lives in his clinic where he tends to the medical needs of war veterans and provides plastic surgery and prosthetics to cover their scars and wounds from battle. Burt meets with Harold to meet a client played by Taylor Swift. She wants Burt to perform an autopsy on her father, a retired general who is suspected of having been murdered instead of dying by natural causes as was reported.
What unfolds is a grand conspiracy that touches upon fascism, racial discrimination, and big business. Kept light, at times almost dream-like, and an uneven touch of whimsy, ‘Amsterdam’ tries to draw out the mystery of the murder and the grandness of the conspiracy as much as it can while introducing an ever-expanding cast that includes Margot Robbie, as a French nurse that the two friends meet during WWI, Zoe Saldana, a forensic nurse, Rami Malek and Anna Taylor-Joy, who play a couple in high society that may help the two friends escape the trouble they have found themselves in, Andrea Riseborough, who plays Burt’s estranged wife, and Robert De Niro, who plays a retired general, whose connection to the deceased general may hold a clue to what is going on.
It’s actually hard to keep track of the film’s direction as, right at the midst of the premise opening up, we are then thrown into a flashback of WWI, the time when Burt is assigned to an all-black regiment of the US and meets Harold and then later, Margot Robbie’s Valerie. Broken by their injuries from the war, the three take a trip to Amsterdam where they live a life that is meant to evoke some idea of liberty – a place where they are not judged for how they live or love and are free from the ravages of war and the societal restrictions of 1918 America.
And then it goes back into the present to continue on with the conspiracy while also juggling Burt’s own marital issues with his wife and her disapproving family and war veteran gala that Burt and Harold are very keen to stage and produce.
By keeping it humorous and odd, it gives all the star-studded cast so much room to really play and have fun with their roles – most especially for Robbie and Taylor-Joy, who seem to have a blast with their characters – but at the same time, none of the emotional beats of the film really end up landing where they should. The love story between Harold and Valerie doesn’t seem as intense or as inevitable as the story positions it, and the impending danger that the conspiracy is foreshadowing doesn’t provide any real sense of urgency.
What happens is that we are flitting along to every scene and just watching the cast have a ball with their eccentric situations. When the elements of fascism start to play out, the idea of the Amsterdam scene becomes the counterpoint now to everything that fascism is against – that liberty and freedom to live and love the way you want – becomes the central theme of the film. By not taking any of it seriously, the film ends up not really saying much.
In fact, there’s a heavy use of narration from its three main cast and then a long-winded narration by Burt at the very end, there’s a feeling that ‘Amsterdam’ and its anti-fascist messages are more of the director’s manifesto than it is an actual movie with a grounded, solid story. And I use purposefully use the word “grounded” because after watching the movie, I did a little Google search and discovered from an article by the LA Times, that a journalist who did research and wrote a book about the events that are alluded to in the film said that “only 10% of what happens in this movie is based on fact.” He said everything else is fiction.
While there are some really amusing moments in the movie, some that actually got me laughing out loud, and the spectacular performances from the star-studded cast, I ended up leaving the theater wondering what it was that I just saw and if there was anything deeper to this film than the monologue at the end that sort of spoon feeds the film’s message.
This is not the work of David O. Russell, who I have come to admire from the energy and urgency that he was able to infuse into ‘American Hustle.’ Sure, ‘Amsterdam’ is pretty to look at but that’s about it.
Amsterdam is now showing in cinemas nationwide.