Look, I get it. It isn’t easy to craft an original screenplay, introducing an audience to newly-minted characters worth caring about, then building a three-act structure that makes perfect sense. David O. Russell has had more success than many who have tried to pull this off, although his best films have been adaptations (Silver Linings Playbook) or collaborations (The Fighter). His partner in crime this time is Christian Bale, who sat down with the director and tried to think up story ideas five years ago. In the resulting film, Bale disappears into the character of a mentally and physically damaged World War One veteran who now functions on the fringes of legality as a doctor in New York City. The year is 1933, and the most important thing we learn is that he is devoted to his friend and fellow veteran John David Washington, who practices law. Their friendship is closely tied to a woman (Margot Robbie) they met while recuperating from their battlefield injuries fifteen years ago in Amsterdam.
The Depression-era tale gives way to a lengthy flashback which is the highpoint of the film. The devotion of these characters to one another is played out as a reverie that is intoxicating in its appeal. Spurred on by the nurse who helps them heal, the ex-soldiers repeat the word Amsterdam over and over—as if they realize that this giddy feeling can’t last. Perhaps invoking that word will bring it back.
The spell is broken when Bale’s character insists on returning home to New York and his estranged wife (Andrea Riseborough). From that point on the film lurches from one tangent to another, leaving us to sort out which threads really matter and which are only incidental. The fact that these figures are all played by significant actors guarantees that the film is never dull but dilutes the impact of the piece. Those actors include Robert De Niro, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, Chris Rock, Alessandro Nivola, Matthias Schoenarts, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, and Timothy Olyphant.
In the climactic portion of the film, Russell tries much too hard to make his story historically relevant, even prescient; whimsy is crushed in the process. That’s not to say the raw material isn’t interesting or doesn’t justify the film’s opening title card which informs us that “some of this really happened.” But the tone of the picture, so carefully crafted in its early stages, is sacrificed. What a shame.
Amsterdam is a good-looking production, shot by the estimable Emmanuel Lubezki, and benefits from Daniel Pemberton’s sympathetic score. But its virtues are undone by a narrative that darts all over the map. I give credit to David O. Russell for taking a big swing, but I wish he connected more consistently than he does.