Every time David O. Russell’s film works on the edge of uncertainty, it works. But the freewheel squeaks.
Photo: 20th Century Studios
How we deal with our brokenness is the not-so-secretly central idea of most David O. Russell films. In amsterdam, he referred to perhaps his most overt treatment of the subject: it opens with images of physical wounds and scars, and as the film progresses we realize how spiritually the characters are also broken. Our ostensible hero is Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a doctor who specializes in “fixing banged up guys like me” – World War I veterans who struggle with missing limbs and faces, “all the wounds the everyone was happy to forget.” It’s 1937, and a new war is looming on the horizon, but Burt will always be defined by the last one, the scars of which he bears on many levels: he’s lost his eye and part of his cheek, wears a corset, and now is constantly on the lookout for the latest in mind-altering medicine to get her through the day.
Many injuries loom amsterdam, but the film moves with the carefree verve of a comedic game. Burt and his lawyer friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are drawn into a strange mystery involving the death of a beloved general, which the man’s daughter (Taylor Swift) suspects was a murder. Also caught up in the shenanigans is the gorgeous artist Valerie (Margot Robbie), whom Burt and Harold last saw in Amsterdam many years ago: in a long flashback, we see the blissfully hedonistic idyll they lived in the post-war years when Harold and Valerie were madly in love, Valerie made beautiful shrapnel, and Burt had yet to return to New York to resume his toxic marriage to wealthy Beatrice Vandenheuvel (Andrea Riseborough). A desire to return to the Eden of Amsterdam animates these characters.
It would be easy to get bogged down in the history of amsterdam, which manages to be heavily ornate with incident and character but not particularly elaborate, despite some twists at the end. Basically, the film wants to be a meeting film. Russell likes to fill his castings 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 fund the movies. (although I’m sure it helps) but because he clearly enjoys giving the actors space to strut their stuff. And they do. Bale’s commedia dell’arte antics contrast nicely with Washington’s straight-man styles, 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 turmoil of the interwar period. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers appear as a couple of spies. Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts present themselves as a couple of cops. I could happily watch entire movies about some of these secondary characters.
Russell’s style is what I would call aggressive empathy: He insists on reminding us that everyone lives their own life, but his films are neither patient nor generous in what we associate with empathy. If Jean Renoir’s famous maxim that “everyone has his reasons” was, in the eyes of this director, a soft but melancholy truth about the world, Russell seems to consider this same reality with alternating shock waves of wonder and of horror. His films are both indulgent celebrations and anxious nightmares about the fact that other people exist.
amsterdam is filled with slapstick, puns, proto-musical numbers, and moments of broad actor abandonment — 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 runs on that edge of uncertainty, the image works beautifully. But the freewheel can also reach you after a while. As it accumulates runtime (and characters and plot points), amsterdam starts to get exhausting when maybe it should be liberating or intoxicating.
And Russell struggles to tie it all together. For all its shaggy dog goodness – and that should come as no surprise, given the setting, characters, and premise – amsterdamthe story of leads to something deep. He has important and timely points to make about spiritual wounds, the specter of war, the yearning for lost utopias, and the rise of fascism. By the time the picture starts to lock into its story, however, you might realize it’s become an entirely different film. A more serious film but not necessarily better. Still, at least we had Amsterdam.