“A lot of this really happened,” assures the opening title card for the new historical dramedy Amsterdam from Disney’s 20th Century Studios, written and directed by David O. Russell (Three Kings, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook), and I can’t help but admire the filmmaker’s choice to be up front about taking artistic liberties with factual source material.
We meet an affable but disheveled middle-aged doctor named Burt (Christian Bale of American Psycho and The Dark Knight fame, doing his best Peter Falk) who cares for injured veterans in New York City about a decade or so after the end of World War I. Then we meet his lawyer friend Harold (Tenet’s John David Washington, son of Denzel) who we learn served alongside him on the battlefield, forming a lifelong bond.
In true film noir fashion, the pair are approached by Liz (songstress Taylor Swift, doing her best to broaden her horizons), the distraught daughter of a general (Better Call Saul’s Ed Begley Jr. in a cameo appearance) who died under mysterious circumstances while returning to the United States. Liz wants proof that her father was murdered, and the good doctor reluctantly agrees to perform his third autopsy ever because the man helped form Burt and Harold’s mixed-race regiment in the war. But when the daughter is suddenly murdered by a menacing red-faced man (Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant, playing hilariously against type) and the two friends are framed for the crime, they find themselves embroiled in a case with implication far beyond a simple pair of homicides. At that point Amsterdam then detours to a wartime flashback, where Harold and Burt meet a quirky American nurse (Margot Robbie from The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad) who makes evocative abstract art from the shrapnel she pulls from soldiers’ bodies. The inseparable pair become a trio and spend an idyllic period of bohemian bliss together in the titular Dutch city. The film then brings us back to the early-1930s present, where the three companions are reunited under perplexing circumstances involving another general (an engaged and engaging Robert De Niro) and must work together to solve this cryptic conundrum.
Amsterdam, like a number of Russell’s previous films, is at once brisk, intriguing, funny, and compelling. Anyone who’s seen the poster or trailer for the film know it’s got a stacked cast of supporting players such as Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, and the unlikely pairing of Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as a couple of bird-watching enthusiasts who also happen to be spies– a twist that’s playfully revealed immediately upon their introduction via freeze-frame captions, so I don’t feel like I’m encroaching on spoiler territory. What I definitely won’t spoil is the direction all the various interested parties’ machinations are headed, but you can probably guess the general gist of the outcome based on the time period during which this film is set. Regardless, it’s just a tremendous amount of fun to watch these characters (and actors that inhabit them) bounce off each other, and despite the fact that the movie runs over two hours long, it felt like a swift 95 minutes because of the sheer energy of the proceedings. Since his mid-90s debut with the dark comedy Spanking the Monkey and its follow-up Flirting with Disaster, David O. Russell has established himself as a reliable (if occasionally difficult to work with) auteur whose tempestuous, fruitful rapport with actors have generated some of the most memorable ensemble performances of Hollywood’s past quarter century. That tradition continues here, and if you’re anything like me, by the end of Amsterdam you’ll have connected with its leads enough to be rooting for them to have a happy ending. You’ll also be curious to find out more about the real-life events that inspired this lively, captivating romp– something I plan to do as soon as possible.
Amsterdam will be released into theaters on Friday, October 7.
My grade: 4 out of 5 dark hazel glass eyeballs.