David O. Russell’s snarky but self-serious ‘Amsterdam’ makes an improvised muddle of Depression Era history

At once pretentious and self-important but also snarky and nearly nonsensical, ‘Amsterdam’ is one of the least pleasant, most inaccessible movies of the year. It watches as though someone stripped Wes Anderson of all his visual panache and gave him free reign to make a film noir. But Anderson isn’t the culprit; it’s David O. Russell, whose Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle have been overrated since they appeared a decade ago. But at least they followed a narrative thruline and featured well-defined characters acting in a consistent manner. ‘Amsterdam’ bears none of those qualities. It’s early 20th century American history that Russell places in the hands of a weird improv troupe.

Russell is the latest modern director to take a shot at the 1930s. I had some harsh words about Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley‘ last year, but that movie, for all its coldness and distance, was beautiful to look at and faithful to its brilliant source material. Amsterdam takes as its vague inspiration a plot to recruit an American general to overthrow democracy simultaneous to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Russell throws into this plot three clodhoppers who are supposed to be sympathetic, played by three top screen actors.

AMSTERDAM★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell
Starring:  Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Robert DeNiro, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Chris Rock
Running time: 166 mins

Christian Bale plays a doctor who lost an eye and a whole lot more on the World War I battlefields of Belgium. John David Washington is his best friend, now a lawyer. Margot Robbie plays a magical rich pixie who poses as a nurse, heals their wounds in hospital, and then they all form an inseparable bond by singing a “nonsense song.” Then they go to Amsterdam and live like bohemians. Robbie makes surrealist art and the pals dance the night away. Am I joking about this? I wish I weren’t.

Fifteen years later, in New York City, a secret fascist society tries to hunt Bale and Washington down after attempting to frame them for pushing Taylor Swift in front of a car. Again, I am not joking. Meanwhile, Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy have sequestered Robbie’s character away in a suburban mansion, lest she catch wind of a sinister plot that she didn’t know existed, and tell Bale and Washington, well-meaning morons who do a lot to help veterans, about it. None of it makes any sense, nor does the appearance of Mike Myers and Michael Shannon as spies who somehow know everything about this plot yet have done nothing to prevent its unspooling over the years.

Meanwhile, Robbie and Washington have a star-crossed love affair, impossible because she’s white and he’s black. True and accurate enough, but they have less chemistry than Bale does with his glass eye. Russell fetishizes Bale and his eye to a bizarre degree. It pops out every 15 minutes. The action stops and the entire cast drops whatever they’re doing to sterilize and reinsert the eye. Meanwhile, Bale is trying to win back his wife, who is a rich asshole, while also having a tender love affair with Zoe Saldana, a kind nurse who is also a coroner. These scenes happen occasionally, providing some relief to the plot until a couple of New York City detectives, who do nothing and serve no purpose, appear to pop Bale’s eye out onto the floor again.

Robert DeNiro enters at the 90-minute mark as a general who conducts himself with dignity. DeNiro is actually quite good in this movie, even if his main role is to stare stoically and heroically and occasionally explain the plot that no one can understand. Also, Chris Rock plays another WWI veteran who occasionally pops in and says something like “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?”

The movie thrives on flashbacks, some of them in slow motion, and occasionally Bale narrates what the hell is going on even though we can plainly see what is going on, even though none of it makes any sense. At one point, Washington and Robbie begin to narrate their own sections, but the movie drops that premise, just like Bale drops his eye. And then we get a ten-minute Bale monologue at the end extolling the virtues of kindness, which would be find if the movie had actually been kind, or if we remembered any of the characters that Bale fondly recalls.

Other than DeNiro and Saldana (who is quite calming), all the actors in this movie range from bland to hammily terrible, trying to do the behest of a mad director who thinks he’s making great art that will heal America by exposing its true corrupt nature. Russell clearly wants to return to Oscar glory, but this movie is more likely to win him multiple Razzies than anything else. Maybe they can give him the award in Amsterdam.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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