Whenever David O. Russell’s film is operating on an edge of uncertainty, it works. But the freewheeling freewheeling-ness grates.
Photo: 20th Century Studios
How we deal with our brokenness is the idea not so secretly at the center of most of David O. Russell’s films. In amsterdam, he’s conjured up perhaps his most overt treatment of the subject: It opens with images of physical wounds and scars, and as the film proceeds, we realize how spiritually broken the characters are as well. Our ostensible hero is Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a doctor who specializes in “fixing up banged-up guys like myself” — veterans of the First World War who struggle with missing limbs and faces, “all injuries the world was happy to forget .” The year is 1937, and a new war is on the horizon, but Burt will always be defined by the last one, whose marks he carries on multiple levels: He lost his eye and part of his cheek, wears a back brace, and now is constantly on the lookout for the latest advances in mind-altering medicine to get him through the day.
Many wounds loom over amsterdam, but the film moves with the devil-may-care verve of a comic romp. Burt and his lawyer friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) get yanked into a bizarre mystery involving the death of a beloved general, which the man’s daughter (Taylor Swift) suspects to be murder. Also pulled into the shenanigans is gorgeous artist Valerie (Margot Robbie), whom Burt and Harold last saw in Amsterdam many years ago: In an extended flashback, we see the blissfully hedonistic idyll the three of them lived in the years after the war when Harold and Valerie were madly in love, Valerie was making beautiful shrapnel-art, and Burt had not yet returned to New York to resume his toxic marriage to the wealthy Beatrice Vandenheuvel (Andrea Riseborough). A yearning to return to the Eden of Amsterdam animates these characters.
It’d be easy to get bogged down with the story of amsterdam, which manages to be heavily adorned with incident and character but not particularly elaborate, despite a couple of twists at the end. At its heart, the film wants to be a hangout movie. Russell loves to fill his casts with big names — this one includes Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, and Rami Malek, among many others — not because he needs them to get the movies financed (though I’ m sure it helps) but because he clearly loves to give actors space to strut. And strut they do. Bale’s commedia dell’arte antics contrast nicely with Washington’s straight-man stylings, while Robbie seems to be in a constant state of transformation, from French nurse to American bohemian to New York socialite, perhaps embodying the existential restlessness of the period between the wars. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers show up as a couple of spies. Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts show up as a couple of cops. I could happily watch entire movies about some of these side characters.
Russell’s style is one I would call aggressive empathy: He insists on reminding us that everybody lives their own life, but his films aren’t patient or generous in the ways we associate with empathy. If Jean Renoir’s famous dictum that “everyone has their reasons” was, in that director’s eyes, a gentle but melancholy truth about the world, Russell seems to regard that same reality with alternating shockwaves of wonder and horror. His movies are both indulgent celebrations of, and anxious nightmares about, the fact that other people exist.
amsterdam is filled with slapstick, wordplay, proto-musical numbers, and moments of broad, actorly abandon — so much so that, despite the fact that the story often feels like it’s on a predictable path, you never know if the movie itself will just stop and go in a completely different direction. Whenever it’s operating on that edge of uncertainty, the picture works marvelously. But the freewheeling freewheeling-ness can also get to you after a while. As it accumulates running time (and characters and plot points), amsterdam starts to get exhausting when it should perhaps feel liberating or intoxicating.
And Russell has difficulty tying everything up. For all its shaggy-dog qualities — and this should come as no surprise, given the setting, the characters, and the premise — amsterdam‘s tale is leading to something profound. It has big, timely points to make about spiritual injury, the specter of war, longing for lost utopias, and the rise of fascism. By the time the picture starts to lock back into its story, however, you might realize that it has become a totally different movie. A more serious movie but not necessarily a better one. Still, at least we had Amsterdam.