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Amsterdam review: A great film is fighting to get out

Dir: David O Russell. Starring: Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Robert de Niro, Rami Malek. Cert 15, 134 minutes

“A lot of this really happened” goes the title card for David O Russell’s starry, stylish, caper-ish Amsterdam. Emphasis on “a lot”. In its relentless, pinballing plot, there’s a fascist coup, an unsolved murder, an entire world war, shady figures aplenty, many cunning plans, and… a love story. It runs to just over two hours, but I felt like I’d been watching it for three days. Which, coincidentally, is the same duration as my most recent – and far less eventful – trip to actual Amsterdam.

This is Russell’s first film since the intriguing mob boss biopic Joy in 2015. In those seven years, he seems to have had a lot of ideas and put them all of them into one film. Largely set in New York in the 1930s, his script hinges on a curious true story, in which a cabal of businessmen attempted to overthrow Franklin D Roosevelt and replace him with a popular war veteran who they could puppeteer for their own malevolent ends. This, though, ends up feeling like the Any Other Business section of a film you could describe as a comedy. Or a thriller. Or a mystery. Or a historical drama. It is, as I say, A Lot.

In fact, it functions best as a buddy movie. Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie form our plucky trio. Bale is the zany doctor Burt Berendsen who “left my eye in France”. He likes coming up with experimental medicines and his hair gets more unkempt as the film gets wilder. Washington, largely the straight man, is the smart, sensitive lawyer Harold Woodman, who faces a lot of racism with quiet dignity. And Robbie, as nurse Valerie, smokes a pipe to let us know she’s ballsy. They meet and form a friendship pact during the First World War, in which Burt and Harold are blown up and stitched back together by Valerie, who makes arty sculptures from the shrapnel she removes from their bodies. When the conflict ends, they go to Amsterdam, where they emerge as a kind of Bloomsbury Group but with better-moisturised skin. We see them tangled up together on the floor, having heady nights out dancing, making art, supporting battle-torn veterans and wearing silly hats. The contrast is bluntly drawn: Amsterdam is a haven of free love, while America is a nest of prejudice and corruption. Unfortunate, then, they should end up dispersed and back in nasty old America, where Burt and Harold are falsely accused of murder.

The music is scampery. The vibe: hijinks. Sometimes it’s as though Wes Anderson were running a speakeasy, with the cast to match. Top-tier actors come and go at such a rate that it starts to feel a bit obnoxious. Look, it’s Chris Rock! Michael Shannon! Zoe Saldana! Anya Taylor-Joy! Mike Myers! Alessandro Nivola! Rami Malek! Robert de Niro! Taylor Swift is in a car crash within the first 10 minutes, which is to say she comes out of it a lot better than she did in Cats. After a while, these beautifully lit appearances make the film feel stilted, like when you’re playing a computer game and a new character pops up with some expositional dialogue to send you on a mission.

Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie in ‘Amsterdam’ (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)
Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie in ‘Amsterdam’ (Courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

But the central performances are charming, and stretches of the film are enjoyable. Everything looks stylish and wonderful, and everyone has nice hair. Seriously, Rami Malek, what conditioner are you using? The thing is, there is a great film in here fighting to get out, but it’s drowned out by manic plotting, self-indulgence, and a thickly laid-on, twee message about love and art. Things start to unravel about halfway through as the plot gets denser and the point becomes foggier. Even the characters start to tell each other that they don’t know what’s going on. Who killed Taylor Swift’s dad? Who is running a set of inhumane sterilisation clinics? Who are the “Committee of Five”? Is someone drugging Valerie? Will Christian Bale’s wife ever let him move back in? In a handful of scenes, you can feel the creaky levering of the plot. It’s bizarre that so unwieldy a film should also feel so tightly manipulated.

One of Amsterdam’s most intriguing elements is its sheer number of slightly broken men; so many of them are scarred and stitched together, bearing the wounds of the war on their bodies or behind their eyes. The film hints at some sophisticated ideas about the weaponisation of veterans and the complicated thread between masculinity, service and patriotism. There’s an unspoken understanding between those who fought, and shame directed at those who didn’t (Nivola’s detective character is teased about the “flat feet” that excused him). But the film skims past them in its pursuit of so many other things. It wants to address racism, intolerance, conspiracy theories, class, and plenty more besides. Eventually, it rolls over to give us its saccharine message about “art and love – that’s what makes the life worth living”. It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow, given Russell is allegedly a director who doesn’t treat people with a whole lot of love when he makes art. The main problem, though, is that this is a richly overstuffed concoction, and not many of us are inspired to creativity or kindness when we’re full. We tend to just need a lie-down.