A star-studded new historical comedy that’s amusing at best, noxious at worst, and frantically self-insistent upon its own negligible entertainment value at all times as it strains to find the beauty in the mad tapestry of life? That’s right: David O. Russell is back. And while the volatile director’s recent work (“Joy,” “American Hustle”) has been damning enough to dampen enthusiasm for this comeback on its own — even without Russell’s various personal controversies — it doesn’t exactly help matters that his first movie in seven years is a wildly over-cranked plea to “protect kindness” that rings every bit as forced and hollow as you might expect from someone with such a pronounced reputation for killing it himself.
But David O. Russell lives for mess. It’s his ideal state and favorite subject. “Amsterdam,” as with all of the director’s movies, is clearly the work of someone who wanted it to be this way; someone who wanted his sepia-toned noir about one of the United States’ clumsiest political conspiracies to feel like a humorless farce, a sexless “Jules and Jim” love triangle, and also a guileless rebuttal to the latest flare-up of American fascism all at the same time.
Such exuberant muchness has become Russell’s signature over the last two decade, as most of his 21st century films — starting and peaking with the miraculous “I Heart Huckabees” — have run themselves ragged trying to thread a measure of divine togetherness through the fraying quilt of our existence (“When you get the blanket thing you can relax because everything you could ever want or be you already have and are”). A worthy subject, to be sure, but in order to dramatize how everything is connected on a subatomic level, Russell first has to skin his films with a superficial layer of chaos. In order to hear the beauty in the breakdown, he first has to orchestrate a cacophony of white noise.
In Russell’s more “grounded” fare — namely earlier work like “Three Kings,” but also 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” during which the filmmaker adopted the uptempo and unmoored 360-degree style he still employs today — the real world once gave him something of a leg to stand on. When it comes to the (even more) heightened likes of his later Jennifer Lawrence collaborations, however, Russell has been responsible for creating the same mess he wanted to clean up, and that invariably leads to a clusterfuck of bad shtick.
So it goes with “Amsterdam,” which swaps out Lawrence for the equally game Margot Robbie and surrounds her with a dozen more of today’s biggest stars but otherwise continues the director’s recent trend of trying (and failing) to pan for truth amid the whitewater rapids of his own bullshit.
“A lot of this really happened,” promises the movie’s pained smile of an opening title card (what hath Adam McKay wrought?), which proves to be a characteristically misleading introduction from a filmmaker who can no longer tell the difference between truth and artifice. It also proves to be a perverse setup for a story that starts with Christian Bale playing someone who clearly never existed. No one on Earth will come away from “Amsterdam” wondering if Dr. Burt Berendsen — a kind and kooky one-eyed WWI vet whose rumpled optimism and frizzy shock of brown hair make it seem like he wandered off of a Coen brothers set — was an actual person. Willy Wonka was a more believable human being.
Less obviously invented is Burt’s best friend, former war buddy, and forever straight man Harold Woodman, Esq. (John David Washington), who summons Burt to a Manhattan funeral parlor one day in 1933. It seems the magnanimous general who created Burt and Harold’s mixed-race army regiment has been murdered, and his daughter — played by Taylor Swift, who acquits herself with aplomb in a brief appearance that will survive in meme-form long after the rest of this movie has been forgotten — would like our trusted heroes to perform the autopsy.
Chris Rock is also there for some reason, inhabiting perhaps the most flagrantly “there for some reason” role in a film that features stiff competition from Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as a pair of goofy spies, Ed Begley Jr. as a corpse, ex-New York Ranger Sean Avery as a random soldier, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a hulking detective (at least Alessandro Nivola, who plays Schoenaerts’ weaselly partner, finds a wide array of funny reasons to be there every time he appears on screen).
The general’s killing will turn out to be the first domino in a cryptocratic plot to overthrow the American government and replace it with a puppet dictator controlled by a cabal of racist business tycoons — hence our history books remembering it as “The Business Plot” before the same methods were formerly rebranded as the “Republican Agenda.” But “Amsterdam” can’t fully embrace its fate as the interwar “American Hustle” until it walks us through some major backstory, and so we’re off to 1918, where Burt and Harold find themselves under the loving care of a sweetly deranged nurse named Valerie Voze (Robbie, serving up a well-adjusted version of Harley Quinn) after sustaining injuries on the frontlines.
Valerie and Harold fall in love, which works for Burt because his senseless heart belongs to the WASPy nightmare of a wife he left back home (Andrea Riseborough), and the three of them decamp to Amsterdam for an edenic slice of bohemia and the best years of their lives. Alas, it’s only a matter of time before reality intervenes and the trio is split apart, a separation made all the more unfortunate because this movie actually has a nice little kick to it during the brief stretches when its blissful triumvirate is left to swan around the dream life they share together.
These characters are destined to reunite more than a decade later when it’s revealed that Valerie — who has some backstory of her own — was the one who suggested Burt and Harold for the general’s autopsy, but little of the old magic follows them home. What scant traces of it remain aren’t enough to buoy a convoluted yet all too simple conspiracy saga that’s all business and no product.
Some mysterious proto-Nazi types, mostly represented by Timothy Olyphant’s mustached Tarim Milfax, are trying to install the very uninterested General Gil Dillenbeck (a very uninterested Robert De Niro) into the White House, and maybe sterilize America’s Black population at the same time, although that subplot gets weirdly minimized for something so sinister. Despite the bulging size of Russell’s cast — I haven’t even mentioned that Anya Taylor-Joy does a rather marvelous turn as Valerie’s aloof sister, that Rami Malek gawks through a couple of scenes as her rich husband, or that Zoe Saldaña plays Burt’s autopsy nurse crush with a hard-edged appeal that screams for a better movie — there are only a small handful of plausible suspects who could be masterminding the conspiracy, the details of which are even more undercooked here than they seem to have been in real life.
And the only thing that could foil their evil plan and prove that love will triumph over hatred in the end? An interracial throuple.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
That “Amsterdam” manages to run for 134 minutes without slowing down — despite its wanton disarray of a plot — should be interpreted as a mild warning. Russell squeezes a lot mileage from the notion that Burt and Harold are suspects in the general’s murder, but it never feels like either of them is in the least bit of danger. Most of the film is spent on scenes that feature 10 gallons of dialogue poured into story beats the size of a thimble, an orgiastic flurry of self-amused reaction shots, and a rotating voiceover track that’s passed between the characters as if at random (drink every time Bale says that he “followed the wrong god home” and you might just be lucky enough to pass out before Mike Myers’ whole bit about cuckoo birds). At times, that strategy can make it feel as though Burt, Harold, and Vera share the same thoughts; more often, it just feels as though they share the same writer.
So far as Russell is concerned, that may be more of a feature than a bug. For him, anything is permissible in the pursuit of a certain madcap vibration — a harmonistic singularity that suggests everything is connected. His supercollider-like films strive to reveal that molecular togetherness by spinning so fast that they eventually blur into focus, and they tend to work best during the stretches when raw energy is being catalyzed into action (or vice-versa).
If “Amsterdam” ultimately arrives at some very simple conclusions about the power of love and the operatic ring cycle of history repeating, it at least manages to stay in Russell’s favorite zone for longer (and in more likable fashion) than several of his previous films. However dissonant it might be for a David O. Russell character to preach the virtues of protecting kindness, there’s an undeniable spark that bonds Burt, Harold, and Vera together — a bond that seems to grow stronger as the movie goes on because of how it weathers the nonsense around it.
As with any interwar story about the power of friendship, “Amsterdam” knows that its victories will be pyrrhic in nature, but if history repeats itself, that means our hopes for a better future can repeat themselves too. “Do me a favor,” Burt asks: “Try to be optimistic.” Of course, optimism is the easy part in a movie like this. It’s entertainment that proves elusive.
20th Century Studios will release “Amsterdam” in theaters on Friday, October 7.