Burt and Harold have been accused of murder. Not in the legal sense, mind you, with arrests and affidavits, attorneys and judges, but in the old-fashioned way of finger-pointing and yelling louder than everyone else.
You see, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington) were talking to a woman (I won’t give away who) on the sidewalk when a man from the crowd came forward and pushed her in front of oncoming traffic. And his timing is pretty good: She was just about to tell Burt and Harold a very important piece of information. Now she’s dead, and the man with the pushing hands points at Harold, a Black man in a sea of white faces, and the one-eyed Burt and accuses them of the deed. Seeing that now is not the time to mount a defense, Burt and Harold hightail it out of there, and as they board a city bus, the camera freezes on Burt’s shocked face as the scarred war vet wonders: How did we get here?
Better question: Where is this going? Did that scene sound comic to you? Why, then, does writer/director David O. Russell include moments of slapstick seconds after a woman is unceremoniously thrown under a moving truck? When Burt goes to the ground to check on her, the truck driver opens the door and bonks Burt on the noggin. Not in a harmful way, more in a Harold and Lloyd oh-the-indignity-of-it‑all kind of way. And though Russell introduces racial tension into the scene, it’s downplayed. Those tensions are present but downplayed a lot in Amsterdam, as if Russell is trying to paper over uncomfortable moments by looking for a laugh that isn’t there.
Amsterdam is an unfunny comedy, and even Russell seems to know it. Why else would he rely so heavily on speeches and past political parallels to modern-day developments? He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki photograph much of Amsterdam’s first two-thirds in tight, head-on close-ups of the movie’s main characters. It feels like direct address—though the camera’s position seems to favor Burt’s character as the audience surrogate. But when Amsterdam reaches its climax and Russell starts addressing the audience, the composition and the cutting favor the Hollywood standard of characters talking to someone just to the right or the left of the lens. Why Russell loses his conviction at this moment is one of the movie’s quandaries.
Quandaries there are many. Amsterdam is set primarily in 1933, with Burt guiding us through a flashback to 1918, to “the war to end all wars,” where Burt, a well-to-do doctor on Park Avenue, is sent to the trenches of Belgium because his in-laws half-hate him for being half-Jewish. There, Burt is put in command of a Black company led by Howard, who accepts Burt because of his Semitic background and because General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) also hates bigotry and wants to see men like Burt and Howard get along.
There’s a lot of bigotry in Amsterdam, though most of it is implied and little is depicted. Take the character of the police detective Hiltz (Alessandro Nivola). He doesn’t say much, but you get the impression that he doesn’t care for Burt or Howard. Is Hiltz anti-Semitic? Is he racist? Maybe. Or is it that Hiltz developed a sizeable chip on his shoulder because guys like Burt and Detective Lem Getwiller (Matthias Schoenaerts) keep needling him about having flat feet and not being able to serve?
Back to Meekins: He’s dead in ’33, and his family suspects foul play. It’s up to Burt and Howard to prove it. And to do that, they’ll have to expose a cabal trying to usurp the presidency. As an opening title card assures the audience, most of this really happened. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise for anyone even casually acquainted with America’s isolationist and anti-Semitic sentiments prior to entering World War II. Not that the war changed anything; it just kind of suppressed for a little while.
Amsterdam is about that and about the idyllic days our three heroes spent in Amsterdam after being severely injured in Belgium. Those days involve the artistic and spritely Valerie (Margot Robbie), a woman who loves both men, but one a little more than the other. Not that either seems to mind. It’s a beautiful time of art and life and love, but apparently no sex—they are the trois without the ménage. But once Burt leaves for America, it all evaporates like a dream.
Amsterdam is a mess. It’s a mystery plot about uncovering a conspiracy that keeps getting sidetracked by tangents, shoddy attempts at comedy, and a cast of characters that would crowd the frame if they ever convincingly inhabited the same space. It’s a movie that concludes with a couple of speeches directed at contemporary audiences but skirts around uncomfortable and complicated moments with a clunky joke. Then there are the arguments about what art is and what art should do. These moments are shoehorned into the movie with all the grace and ease of a tank. And if that weren’t enough, the dialogue is rendered lifeless by practically every player. They get the lyrics right, but no one can carry the tune.
Written and directed by David O. Russell
Produced by Christian Bale, Matthew Budman, Anthony Katagas, Arnon Milchan, David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Alessandro Nivola, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Casey Biggs, Dey Young, Ed Begley Jr.
20th Century Studios, Rated R, Running time 134 minutes, Opens Oct. 7, 2022.