A lot of this really happened. So Amsterdam opens. This being the new all-star enterprise by controversial awards magnet David O’Russell. Once known for winning, mid scale indie hits like Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, O’Russell shifted to more highfaluting affairs in 2013 with American Hustle. That was a glamorous, artfully convoluted and entirely overblown affair. Amsterdam follows suit. Regardless of how much of the film really happened, there’s no doubting there’s a lot of it.
Things begin relatively coherently. The setting is New York and the year is 1933. Christian Bale is Burt Berendsen, a one eyed war veteran and medic who makes a living patching up the similarly scarred and decrepit. It’s a hobbling, deliberately articulated “performance” – capital P – that does much to establish a kooky and vaguely surrealist tone. A sort of clipped aesthetic somewhere between Wes Anderson and Adam McKay.
Burt is summoned by old comrade, now lawyer, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington – impressively restrained) to accept a job from a distressed Elizabeth Meekins. She’s played by Taylor Swift, in yet another impressive bit part. One can only imagine how many lead roles Swift must now have turned down. Harry Styles ought take note. Elizabeth wishes Burt to complete an autopsy on her father, his old commander in France, whom she believes to have been murdered en route from Europe to America. This leads to a very funny exchange regarding to Burt’s last – and only – two former autopsies and the sardonic zinger: ‘well, we know you’re good with small intestines’.
Burt recruits sultry medical examiner Irma St Clair (Zoe Saldaña) to aid with the task and, as it transpires, Elizabeth was spot on the money. Only, it’s not long before she too is brutally offed, with Harold and Burt framed for the dirty deed. The pair’s mission to prove their innocence leads them back to Margot Robbie’s Valerie Voze. Back in the day, she, Harold and Burt had run away from the world to a bohemian purdah in post-war Amsterdam. Now, she’s wide-eyed, of a nervous disposition and increasingly suspicious of the drugs her brother (Rami Malek) and sister (Anya Taylor-Joy) take for it. That Valorie and Harold still hold a flame for one another is beyond doubt.
It’s around here on that things begin to unravel. A tone first set within the field of crime capers finds itself increasingly laden by input from a dozen other genres. Worst of these is the arduous addition of a history lesson and none too subtle comparison to now dated Trumpian politics. O’Russell’s inspiration for the film appears to have been both the little known 1933 ‘Business Plot’ – in which a small collective of capitalist heavy weights allegedly conspired to overthrow Roosevelt with a dictatorship – and the US Capitol mob of 2021. The result is meandering plot that proves hard to follow and ultimately descends into a soupy and saccharine finale. There’s only so many times the word ‘love’ can be crowbarred into a sentence before the viewer feels compelled to vomit.
A more streamlined affair may have done better to hold the attention. Yet, not only is Amsterdam narratively cluttered but the continuous stream of A-listers increasingly proves a distraction. Atop the aforementioned, Robert De Niro headlines and there are none to minor appearances for Mike Myers, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Shannon, Matthias Schoenaerts and Chris Rock. While some are exquisite – Taylor-Joy and Riseborough among them – others prove tiresome and almost cartoonish. With such calibre as this, it’s hard to tell whether it is the actor or director at fault.
Much as with American Hustle before it, Amsterdam does at least offer visual spectacle. Costume and production design by J. E. Hawbaker and Judy Becker respectably excites the eye even when the mind threatens to stray. As for the perplexing independence of Bale’s glass eye, consider said mind boggled.