It’s tumbleweeds out there for audiences craving studio movies made for grownups. The landscape is so ravaged, you want to protect any movie with a brain cell or one scintilla of creative invention, no matter how far it misses the mark. So throw an asterisk onto Amsterdam – A for effort! Points for trying, guys! – but what a spectacular misfire it is.
And Amsterdam surely is a spectacle. A period piece dizzy with stars of the major motion picture variety (a pop princess too), Amsterdam aims to say something smart connecting fascism’s rise in the Thirties to our present-day terrors. Moving between 1933 and 1918 and back again, the film tracks two best friends and veterans of the Great War – Burt Berendsen (Bale), a doctor, and Harold Woodman (Washington), a lawyer – as they become embroiled in a murder-mystery tied to their former commanding officer. (Taylor Swift briefly plays the dead guy’s daughter, to distracting effect.) In flashback, we meet Valerie Voze (Robbie), a WWI nurse (also Dadaist artist; also maybe international spy?) who becomes Harold and Burt’s confidant and co-conspirator in mischief. The title’s Amsterdam is where the trio land after the war for an idyllic, all-too-brief spell, and in the film’s imagining, Amsterdam is not just a place, but a concept, representing the cyclical nature of a world history ever recovering from catastrophe then barreling toward it anew. By the film’s 1933 section, catastrophe looms large once more, and they know the mysterious death of their C.O. has something to do with it – but what?
This is a film that actually wants to be a novel; or maybe what I mean is, Amsterdam feels like an unsuccessful adaptation of a better book, perhaps a Chabonesque sprawl of indelible characters darting between actual history and narrative fancy, densely plotted and peopled. In fact, this is an original concoction of writer/director David O. Russell (well, a title card coyly notes that “a lot of this really happened”), and his first feature film since 2015’s achingly dull Joy. (Despite five Oscar nominations, he’s arguably better known these days for his well-documented history of unsavory behavior in his professional and personal life.) Amsterdam is a step up from Joy, certainly – it’s not boring, at least – but it is weirdly leaden for so much razzmatazz. Striving to marry a madcap spirit to earnest, even grandiloquent speechifying – a kind of alchemy the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson have perfected – Amsterdam simply can’t catch flight.
No surprise, Bale is best tuned to Russell’s frequency. As a soldier physically maimed in the war and now self-medicating, he has the benefit of a meatier backstory and transformative prosthetics and accent. He’s also figured out, over the course of three collaborations, how to syrup-tap his way into Russell’s core soulfulness and turn on the drip. (The actor’s combover romantic from their 2013 film American Hustle – which is better than you remember – is a stealth top-five Bale performance.) Barely raising his voice above a whisper, Bale generates more heat in a handful of sentences swapped with Zoe Saldaña than do the film’s ostensible great lovers played by Robbie (blandly chaotic) and Washington (just ... bland). As a threesome, Bale, Robbie, and Washington never really spark, either. Tilt your head and you can catch the ghost of combustive screen trios past: Design for Living, Band of Outsiders, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But Amsterdam’s three leads – individually charismatic performers all – collectively can’t sell the film’s sentimental, facile idea that love beats all, even those pesky fascists. And that breaks my heart a little.
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