Frisky murder-mystery ensemble comedy ‘Amsterdam’ has a serious undertone of truth
Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie & John David Washington
Directed by David O. Russell
In theaters Friday, Oct. 7
A trio of friends from the waning days of World War I forms the hub of this freewheeling screwball yarn of camaraderie, conspiracy, art, beauty and making love, not war.
Director David O. Russell, who also wrote and produced the film, corrals an all-star cast for his quirky caper comedy, which unspools in 1933 as a pair of World War I veterans and a wealthy socialite artist find themselves drawn into a murder mystery, one possibly connected to a deeper, nefarious political plot.
Christian Bale is Burt Berendsen, a physician who served on the battlefields of World War I, now treating the pain and reconstructive needs of other veterans while planning a big WWI reunion of all the servicemen who returned to New York City. Things begin to get messy and mayhem-ic when he and his lawyer pal, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), are asked to investigate the suspicious death of their highly decorated former commanding officer (Ed Bagley Jr.).
Then they get blamed for the murder—well, actually, for another murder. How can they clear their names?
Soon enough, they are reconnected with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whom they met some 15 years earlier when Burt and Harold were both recovering in a Belgium war hospital where Valerie was working as a Red Cross nurse. The two GIs were awestruck to find out their gorgeous Florence Nightingale had an unusual hobby, using all the bloody shrapnel and bone fragments taken from their battered flesh to make pieces of art, transforming their brokenness into strangely beautiful curios.
Then the three of them ventured together to Amsterdam, on a mission to get Burt a glass eye to replace the one he’d lost in combat. The capital city of the Netherlands was a blissful, dream-like high, a respite of peace after war, one they didn’t want to end.
You probably won’t see another movie this year with so many stars twinkling, twirling, popping and pinging around each other. There’s musical superstar Taylor Swift, as the hyper-paranoid daughter of the deceased officer. Zoe Saldana plays a coroner who opens Burt’s eyes (actually, his eye) to true love. Rami Malek is a suave, wealthy businessman whose huffy-stuffy upper-crust wife (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes positively mushy at the thought of meeting a famous military hero (Robert De Niro). And hey—there’s Chris Rock, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon!
With a leading character who has only one real eye and a fake eyeball, we’re reminded that looks—what we see and choose to see—can be deceiving. We’re prompted to look carefully at people and things, to discern who’s who, who’s what and what’s really going on.
Viewers will see, when the film opens and then after it ends, that what’s going on in this lively, light-footed lark is based (somewhat) on something very serious—namely, a dangerous rise of fascism after World War I, which eventually seeded the horrors of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and another world war. On that level, Amsterdam is a cautionary tale about extremists and anarchists looking to overthrow the government and subvert America’s democratic process—“patriots” who would sabotage the election process to install their own dictator-like leader. You only need one eye to see the contemporary parallels with today’s political turmoil.
Director Russell loves star-packing his movies, including American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and Joy. This one reunites him with a couple of his favorite actors, Bale (who also appeared in American Hustle and The Fighter) and De Niro (also in Hustle, plus Playbook and Joy). Both screen veterans provide eccentric anchors for the colorful tale as it spins and weaves its rich tapestry of parasitic cuckoo birds, Aryan supremacy, Black history, American fascists, eugenics, high-ranking corruption and fat-cat industrialists, drawing them all into its dark-comedy swirl. It’s Robbie, however, who becomes the story’s heart-and-soul centerpiece, with her character reminding us that we’re all damaged in some way, everyone is hurting inside or out, and kindness, not hate, is the balm for our wounds, our scars and our brokenness.
At one point, she, Burt and Harold perform a French song, a little ditty that a puzzled listener has troubling following. “It’s not supposed to make sense,” Valerie says. “We just made it up.”
This mostly made-up period frolic has a kernel of harsh historical truth at the center of its merrily crowded, retro-rollicking tale of friendship, bonds that last a lifetime and places in the heart—not to mention extinct birds, body parts as reappropriated art, and an ensemble of endearing oddballs. It’s a lot, but it’s also a lot of frisky fun.
Just try to hold on to your glass eye.