Amsterdam Is a Mess and a Bomb and Also Sort of Interesting

Credit to David O. Russell for trying to make a movie, Amsterdam, that’s unique and compelling. He didn’t really succeed, but at least he tried.

Still from Amsterdam. (20th Century Studios)

David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) has a new film out, Amsterdam. It’s such a huge flop, such a massive hundred-million-dollar bomb, I couldn’t resist seeing it, just to find out what everyone hated so much.

It’s certainly an odd film, dealing with subject matter that’s very hard to summarize. The typical one-line recap goes like this: “Set in the 1930s, Amsterdam follows three friends who witness a murder, become suspects themselves, and uncover one of the most outrageous plots in American history.”

This conveys almost nothing, to begin with, about the friendship forged among three Americans, soldiers Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington) and nurse who treats them, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whose bond begins in their shared gory, shattering experiences in World War I. They then find an unlikely Bohemian heaven together in Amsterdam after the war, which they subsequently lose in the brutal black comedy of American life. To them, the word “Amsterdam” means a paradise lost and regretted, a whole set of values and behaviors, adventures and delights, that are not possible in the United States.

And that’s just describing the intense comradeship that leads to a “pact” to support each other and come to each other’s aid no matter what follows in life. Which turns out to be, twelve years later, an accusation of murder against Berendsen and Woodman. They’re suspected of killing the daughter (Taylor Swift) of US senator Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr), their former commanding officer. She wanted his suspicious death investigated, and they become the fall guys for the senator’s assassination.

There are a lot more complexities in the rest of the narrative, which spins their fictional story around a fact-based tale announced at the beginning of the film with the title card saying, “A lot of this actually happened.” That’s the “Business Plot,” a secret plan by a cabal of wealthy tycoons to oust Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933–34 and establish a plutocrat-driven fascist empire in America. Part of the plot involved drafting the much admired and highly decorated Marine Corps general Smedley Butler — called General Gil Dillenbeck in the movie, and played by Robert De Niro — to lead the half-a-million-strong “Bonus Army” of veterans, enraged at getting routinely shafted by the government, to support their new political overlords.

(There’s black-and-white footage at the end of the film of Butler giving a public statement about the fascist plot that’s echoed in identical lines spoken by De Niro. But it’s interesting how the nerdy, bespectacled Butler looks nothing like the burly, macho guy De Niro plays.)

The film is top-heavy with stars and noted character actors, to the point that it’s distracting. Chris Rock plays Berendsen and Woodman’s old army buddy. Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy are Valerie Voze’s rich, creepy brother and sister-in-law. Mike Myers and Michael Shannon show up as an eccentric M16 spy and US Naval Intelligence officer, respectively, who are partners and bird-watching enthusiasts. Zoe Saldana plays a medical examiner who becomes romantically involved with Dr Berendsen. And so on.

Writer-director Russell is trying to maintain throughout the overpacked film a unusual tone of dark, farcical comedy shot through with violence, pathos, history, politics, and body horror, so that the combination is almost guaranteed to offend, irritate, and/or bore everybody in America, and maybe the world. In short, a moon shot would be easier to make than a successful version of this movie.

But credit is due for the attempt to do something unique and compelling. The period production is handsomely done, and there are a number of offbeat, engaging performances. I genuinely liked parts of Amsterdam, while admitting it becomes so strangely stagey and didactic by the end, it’s baffling trying to figure out what effect Russell is trying to achieve beyond an earnest, insistent, but scattered topicality. Here we are again, you see, with rising fascism, the wars, the immiseration of the working class, the attempts at overthrowing the government, etc.

Yet early on, the film’s pretty fascinating — the first mainstream film I’ve ever seen that tried to represent with a strange, screwball affection the experience of going from the horrors of WWI directly into the modern art world of Dada and Surrealism that emerged from it. Amsterdam was one city center for rising post-WWI modern art movements, and the film reflects exactly the kind of pathway from the front lines to the atelier with creative expressions of rage-filled, anti-rationalist, anti-bourgeois, burn-it-all-down-to-light-your-cigarettes gallows humor that was Dada, especially.

Two of the three friends are badly scarred by the war: half-Jewish and eccentrically good-natured Dr Berendsen (Bale), pushed into enlisting by his Park Avenue in-laws who argue that medals will help make him more socially acceptable, and shrewd, aspiring black lawyer Harold Woodman (Washington). As the nurse treating them, high-living Valerie Voze (Robbie) extracts pounds of shrapnel from soldiers’ shredded bodies, many maimed beyond anything seen in previous wars, and turns it into macabre yet oddly winsome art.

In fact, I wish this movie had come out when I was teaching a course called the History of Avant-Garde Film — it would’ve been a good accompanying example to go along with Dada and Surrealist films like Man Ray’s Return to Reason (1923), Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926), and Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast (1927). The Dadaists loved commercial cinema and used to run in and out of theaters, watching only the middles of films, refusing the beginnings and endings where so much of the sense-making, ideology-selling aspects of movies are concentrated.

After the war, Voze finds a creative space in Amsterdam where Berendsen, who’s the more terribly wounded and scarred, in constant pain from having lost an eye and sustaining back injuries requiring that he wear a torso-constricting back brace, begins experimenting with facial prosthetics for veterans. His experiments foster her art, as does her sensitively portrayed love affair with Woodman.

It’s hard to describe the appeal of this three-person pact, but it’s captured quite beautifully in a nonsense song they make up together. It’s a very Dada exercise, involving pulling phrases out of a literal hat to invent the lyrics as they go along. Every time they sing it — especially in America when they’re older, sadder, and infinitely less free — the little song becomes more poignant.

The film finds outrageous humor in things like Dr Berendsen’s drug experiments once he’s back in America, trying to discover effective painkillers to help his fellow wounded vets as well as himself. Their physical agony is so constant, all are happy to try anything, cheerful guinea pigs popping new pills or stabbing themselves eagerly with new injections, indifferent to side effects which they figure can’t be worse than their daily suffering. Periodically, usually just after praising how wonderfully the new drug is working, Dr Berendsen pitches forward into total unconsciousness, landing flat on his face in an act of slapstick comedy emerging out of tragedy that the film is reaching for throughout.

I like that part of it a lot. But none of it is finding much traction with critics or the public. There are perfectly good reasons to reject the film, which is so niche I’m not sure who else could find any of it engrossing except me — I just happen to be very interested in lost Bohemian dreams, the interwar period, modern art, and intense modes of friendship. But there are also infuriating critical refusals to even try to understand what the film is attempting before rejecting it out of hand.

A sample, describing Christian Bale’s performance:

Here he plays Burt Berendsen, a kind, doofus Doctor Feelgood who serves up painkillers to fellow World War I veterans. He wears a glass eye, has scars on his face, and (probably due to the frequent ingestion of his own wares) is seen making loopy faces, which Russell and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are eager to shoot in close-up with long lenses, ramping up the cartoon nature of all of it.

This is just an outrageously stupid way to describe the character and performance, a refusal to recognize anything about the historical circumstances being conveyed or what might motivate a black comedy approach to this material. There’s also clearly no knowledge here of ripe comic performances of the past clearly influencing Bale’s performance style — and I should note that Bale has never been so likable before as he is as Dr  Berendsen. Bale admits to drawing on a bit of Peter Falk’s Columbo character. But I’d swear there are screwball comedy performance styles of the 1930s and ’40s being channeled as well, such as ex-vaudevillian Walter Catlett’s addled Sheriff Slocum in Bringing Up Baby.

The reason for some of the sneering dismissals is that Russell’s notoriously obnoxious behavior during several film productions has allegedly tipped over into criminal abuse, with the accusations of sexual molestation by his niece. As a result, Russell may very well be at the end of his filmmaking career, which had already slowed considerably — it’s been seven years since his last film, Joy (2015).

If so, it’s a strange one to go out on, and it was made for a seemingly strange reason: Russell claimed that he and frequent collaborator Christian Bale “really wanted to make a film about friendship and loyalty.”

The best part of the film is the section about the friendship forged in wartime agony, beginning with two lacerated comrades clutching each other on side-by-side hospital gurneys while a nurse who’s going to be the third comrade extracts a pound of shrapnel from their ripped-up bodies that she’ll turn into deliberately twisted art. It’s too bad Russell couldn’t figure out how to realize in the rest of the movie the black comic momentum he was building in certain early scenes. His best films, like American Hustle, point to a kind of terrible, underlying, systemic logic that only looks superficially like chaos as it propels people along to strange fates, usually as a result of their attempts to resist or outsmart or at least not be destroyed by the forces whirling them through their lives.

Amsterdam seemed headed in the same direction but bogged down badly in the end.