In 1933 New York, Burt, a doctor catering to World War I vets, is still best friends with his old war buddy, Harold, now a practicing attorney. Burt is asked to perform an autopsy on recently deceased U.S. Sen. Bill Meekins – by Meekins’ own daughter, who believes he was murdered. When the daughter is killed before their eyes on a busy New York street, our plot thickens.
At this juncture, David O. Russell’s latest feature “Amsterdam” flashes back to a long WWI sequence showing how the two became friends – with one another, and with Valerie, a unique French American nurse who heals their wounds in Belgium and begins a somewhat verboten affair with Harold. Why is it verboten? Because Harold is African American, and Valerie is white. And this is 1918. Russell’s original screenplay then takes us to Amsterdam, where our three protagonists live together and enjoy life for a while.
Unfortunately, this World War I sequence is the most interesting progression of “Amsterdam.” The action slows considerably once we return to 1933 New York. The plot thickens – and an argument could be made that there is simply too much plot – as our interest wanes. Characters pop in and out without much purpose in advancing the story. They exist, rather, to give a bevy of A-list actors a chance to star in a David O. Russell film.
It’s important to recall Russell’s past work. He’s the director whose “Silver Linings Playbook” earned a Best Actress Oscar for young up-and-coming Jennifer Lawrence in 2012. The following year, he released his masterpiece, “American Hustle.” This black comedy crime caper, centered around the Abscam affair of 1979/1980, starred Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Lawrence in a tightly-written, expertly directed, well-paced instant classic that was every bit the equals of some of Martin Scorsese’s best work – such as “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” It made most critics Top 10 lists that year (including mine) and was often cited as one of the best films of the decade. His 2015 biographical picture “Joy” (again starring Lawrence) was another winner, and also made my Top 10 list that year.
While “Amsterdam” is certainly not a great film, it fails in part due to our high expectations. The same cruel fate was bestowed upon Paul Thomas Anderson in 2014, who followed up two masterworks (“There Will Be Blood” and “The Master”) with “Inherent Vice,” a long, “busy” film with too much plot, and way too many A-list actors simply making cameo appearances. This may not be much in the way of a compliment, but “Amsterdam” is inherently superior to “Inherent Vice.”
In fact, Christian Bale (the least interesting of the four leads in “American Hustle”) is actually better here than in that film. His Burt is the glue that holds all the plot developments together. John David Washington plays Harold, and Margot Robbie is Valerie – who comes back into Burt and Harold’s lives in 1933 New York.
Other actors populate Russell’s latest venture without much reason to exist other than to populate Russell’s latest venture. Mike Myers and Michael Shannon play glass eye manufacturers who provide hardware for Burt during the war, and then come back in the 1933 sequence as U.S. intelligence spies. Zoe Saldana is a medical examiner who performs the autopsy with Burt. Andrea Riseborough is Burt’s wife. Taylor Swift is the deceased senator’s daughter. Ed Begley Jr. is the senator. Chris Rock is an old war buddy. And so, the cast list goes. Much as when “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” was released in 1963, many of us are wondering who isn’t in “Amsterdam.” The only truly interesting cameo is that of Anya Taylor-Joy, who has a lot of fun playing a sinister accomplice to the murder.
Eventually, we find ourselves caught up in a story about a small group of prominent businessmen who admire Mussolini and Hitler. They want to force Franklin Roosevelt out of the White House and make the United States a fascist dictatorship. The man they want to put in charge is played by another Russell favorite, Robert De Niro. This part of Russell’s screenplay is based on reality, much as “American Hustle” used Abscam as a backdrop. But the 1933 plot to overthrow the government is not nearly as well-known as that of the front-page Abscam case.
Russell’s objective is likely to equate how close we came to dictatorship in 1933 with similar developments during the Trump administration. But a little of that goes a long way. I’m not saying it isn’t fair to compare the two, but “Amsterdam” isn’t particularly creative in its approach. Again, it’s not a bad film. If Russell were a first-time director, critics and the public would be impressed. We’d think this new talent possessed some real potential. But Russell’s filmography is so imposing he’s set the bar almost too high.
Recall that Paul Thomas Anderson returned to form in “Phantom Thread” and particularly in last year’s “Licorice Pizza,” which I and many critics considered the year’s best film. So, there is hope for Russell. I certainly haven’t lost interest in his work, and I eagerly await his next project.