Thursday, October 6, 2022

Despite its ambition ‘Amsterdam’ falls short

      Director David O. Russell doesn’t always make things easy for himself — or for an audience.
      In Amsterdam, Russell aims big, offering a tilted comic take on a serious subject: the volatile political climate in America just after World War I and before World War II. 
    Creating a drama that swirls with plot and artifice in the early going, the story avoids disclosing its point until its final act when Russell not only clarifies what he’s been doing but tacks on an unconvincing message about the importance of love and kindness.
    That’s a mouthful of meaning and Amsterdam can't quite swallow it whole -- even with help from a strong cast that revolves around Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and David Washington.
   Bale, Robbie, and Washington play characters who meet during World War I. Assigned to lead a company of black soldiers, Bale's Dr. Burt Berendsen develops a lasting friendship with Washington’s Harold Woodman, who returns from the war to become a lawyer in New York City.
   After the war, Burt helps combat-disfigured vets reconstruct their faces using replacement parts that cover gaping wounds but have a stitched-together look that, to push a point, reflects the movie’s fractured soul. Berendsen’s patients are patchworks.
   Berendsen also suffered grave war injuries. He has a glass eye that Russell uses in comic fashion, abetted by Bale whose hair rises from his head like a garden of untended weeds.
   Married to a woman (Andrea Riseborough) whose family can't abide his mixed breed (Catholic/Jewish) origins, Burt struggles along until he and Harold are drawn into the mystery that propels the movie -- albeit in fitful fashion. 
  The movie's central trio is supposed to discover who killed their beloved military commander, a decent fellow played by Ed Begley Jr.
   Washington plays things fairly straight. During the war, Harold falls for Robbie’s Valerie Voze, a free-spirited nurse who creates art from shrapnel she removes from the bodies of wounded soldiers.
   In a playful interlude the three main characters travel to Amsterdam to recover from the war. Burt and Harold decide to return home, even though they might have continued to live with joyful abandon in Europe. 
   For a time, it seems that Amsterdam’s production design has been influenced by Wes Anderson, who specializes in creating environments that insist on existing on their own terms.
   Amsterdam features a host of talent in its supporting roles, too many to name here. I’ll highlight a few. Michael Shannon stands out as a CIA agent who works with a British secret agent (Mike Meyers). Bird lovers both, they make a fine comic duo.
   In the movie's third act, Russell introduces Robert De Niro as if he were a hole card being turned over by a gambler late in the game.
   De Niro appears as General Gil Dillenbeck, the most decorated marine in American history. American fascists and Hitler supporters are trying to turn Dillenbeck into a frontman for a coup.
    About three quarters of the way through a journey that sometimes seems mapless,  Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy turn up as the bother and sister-in-law of Robbie’s Valerie.
   Loosely based on real events, the movie eventually whips comedy and thriller elements into a political cautionary tale with obvious relevance to the current political environment in which some view elections as inconveniences.
  Fair to say that Russell needlessly complicated a story that might have benefited from more straightforward telling. Besides this period of American unease has been dealt with elsewhere, notably in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which turned into an even better HBO series.
   For me, the always adventurous Bale and Robbie are the mainstays of a movie that tries to capture the ingrained absurdity of human interactions during moments of high stress. Think the Marx Brothers only not as funny and without the anarchic glee.
  Amsterdam doesn’t match Russell’s best work in movies such as Three Kings and American Hustle. Sure, the performances can be tasty but this oddly realized movie often has the feel of an interesting fellow who answers the doorbell without first pulling himself together.

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