David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” is very plush in the looks department. Enjoying the costumes and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lighting and some of Russell’s shot designs will get you through it. But only if you don’t have to listen to it, or track it, or believe in the people on screen.
This is not an actor problem, even if one of its three leading players isn’t doing much of anything. Some deft flourishes, amusing or affecting or both, pop up in the frustrating narrative’s margins: Zoe Saldaña’s meticulous calm as a Depression-era nurse; Mike Myers and Michael Shannon as a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of fastidious bird-watching spies.
At the movie’s core lies a rich and troubling true story. In 1933, a group of wealthy American businessmen plotted to overthrow the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Widely dismissed as conspiracy theory nonsense at the time, the fascist-leaning coup never came to fruition. In 1934, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, whose fictionalized equivalent in “Amsterdam” is played by Robert De Niro, testified before a U.S. House of Representatives committee about the existence of the fascist-minded “Business Plot,” also known as the “Wall Street Putsch.”
Against this, writer-director Russell centers a fictional trio, friends since World War I, two of whom are framed for murder years later, in 1933, for reasons they must unravel or else. The 1918 flashback component of “Amsterdam” shows how a facially scarred future plastic surgeon, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), his attorney and fellow WWI vet Harold Woodman (John David Washington) and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse of mysterious origins, make their way to Amsterdam. They’re inseparable, even when Valerie and Harold fall in love.
“We can’t be together in this country,” Valerie says years later, when all three are back in Depression-era America. Their freewheeling Amsterdam memories haunt the movie, though the better word, unfortunately, is “nag”; the flashbacks have a way of interrupting, rather than amplifying, what’s happening in the 1933 scenes.
There’s a murder to be solved: an old, admired WWI commander (Ed Begley Jr.) has been poisoned, and when the dead man’s daughter (Taylor Swift, briefly) is pushed under a car on the streets of Manhattan, Burt and Harold are wrongly implicated in the crime. To clear their names, they zig and zag their way closer to the people, the money, the greed and the political ruthlessness behind the plot against FDR’s regime.
Little in Russell’s back-and-forth structure, or risky mixture of facetiousness and seriousness, can’t also be found in “American Hustle” (2013), one of the filmmaker’s most stimulating historical picaresques. Something’s amiss here, though, right away, with the banter and the bon mots straining for wit. It feels like Russell doing karaoke, backed by a Wes Anderson movie. The dreamy “Jules and Jim” approach to the Amsterdam scenes is, by design, a blunt contrast to Depression-era New York. But in the 1933 storyline, sizable characters played by Chris Rock and others appear, announce themselves, reiterate themselves and struggle to develop or push the events forward. Too often the film seems to be moving sideways, or skipping like a needle on an old LP.
This is Russell’s first film since “Joy” (2015), a similar case of stylistic uncertainty redeemed, partially, by the genial skill of its key actor. With “Amsterdam,” Russell and Bale’s third collaboration, they created the character first over several years, that of Burt, the injured WWI veteran who goes on to help his fellow veterans on the homefront and gets mixed up in the “Business Plot” part of the plot.
Watching Bale and Robbie and Washington together, you can’t help but see how Bale and Robbie work to activate the stakes while Washington doesn’t, quite. In a hugely expensive whatzit like “Tenet,” Washington’s range appeared to narrow by the minute, and while he has done well in many films (notably ”BlacKkKlansman”), “Amsterdam” appears to have flummoxed his dramatic instincts. Right now he’s on Broadway in a revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” That play, and the part he’s tackling, may well lead to the expressive breakthrough he needs as a performer.
It’s the breakthrough “Amsterdam” is too busy being busy to provide.
“Amersterdam” — 2 stars
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MPAA rating: R (for brief violence/bloody images)
Running time: 2:14
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Thursday evening Oct. 6.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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