Review: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie take an all-star cast to buoyant 'Amsterdam'

David O. Russell’s movies are usually stacked with A-list dream teams, and his new period mystery comedy “Amsterdam” is pretty much an all-star game where everybody excels at their roles and no one’s showboating.

It even takes a few seconds after she first appears before you realize, oh, hey, there’s Taylor Swift, decked out in 1930s garb.

Headlined by the trio of Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie, “Amsterdam” (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday) is a delightfully madcap romp in the vein of a Coen Brothers film – and less of an Oscar-baiting play for Russell than the writer/director’s other films (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”). Although entertaining throughout, it suffers from a certain lack of focus – bouncing from screwball humor to war-movie gravitas – before settling into a buoyant conspiracy thriller with real-life historical relevance and a satisfying exploration of friendship and kindness.

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John David Washington (far left), Christian Bale and Margot Robbie  play friends from World War I reunited thanks to a murder mystery in David O. Russell's star-studded period comedy "Amsterdam."
John David Washington (far left), Christian Bale and Margot Robbie play friends from World War I reunited thanks to a murder mystery in David O. Russell's star-studded period comedy "Amsterdam."

In 1933, best friends and World War I veterans Burt (Bale) and Harold (Washington) are heroic sorts helping out fellow soldiers: Burt’s a doctor who concocts medicines and creates prosthetics for the ill and the wounded (he lost an eye in the war); Harold’s a human-rights attorney. When the general (Ed Begley Jr.) who brought them together – who's also the featured speaker at their upcoming gala reunion – dies suddenly, Harold calls Burt to help with an autopsy when the general’s daughter (Swift) suspects foul play.

The investigation into his death goes awry when Burt and Harold witness a murder, become wanted men for the crime and reunite with Valerie (Robbie), the bohemian member of their triumvirate.  In extended flashback, we learn she met the pair in 1918, as a war nurse treating them in a Belgian hospital, where they're won over by her wit and her art, crafted from the tools of war to find beauty amid tragedy. After the war, the three enjoy happy times living together in Amsterdam, until real life puts their pact to always look after each other on hold.

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Bale’s fabulous as the jittery, one-eyed Burt; Robbie’s Valerie is less over the top but still quite the capricious oddball; and Washington’s Harold grounds this crew of loyal friends. The fact that they're tailed by cops and on the wrong people's bad side just makes this band of misfits all the more enjoyable to watch.

The starry supporting cast also play various weirdos and outsiders who add a splash of whimsy: Chris Rock is a hoot as Harold’s legal associate; Mike Myers and Michael Shannon play eccentric bird-watching spies; Zoe Saldana is an autopsy nurse/love interest for Burt, whose demanding wife is played by Andrea Riseborough; Rami Malek exudes smugness as Valerie’s wealthy brother, with Anya Taylor-Joy as his ambitious wife; and Robert de Niro is a stoic general based on a real-life war hero.

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“Amsterdam” kicks off with an opening card that reads “A lot of this actually happened,” and Russell weaves his fictional characters into bits of history, from the Harlem Hell Fighters to an actual fascist plot. Burt sees racism up close when he's assigned to Harold’s mostly Black Army regiment in the war and both are forced to wear French soldiers’ uniforms. The movie also digs into how American soldiers were mistreated back home after the war. But the political and social undertones mainly work to bring characters closer together rather than make heavy-handed statements.

This thing is whimsical whodunit first, message movie second. Add in the main actors' crowd-pleasing chemistry – plus a crowded bench of famous faces – and “Amsterdam” is a quirky, big-hearted trip.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Amsterdam' review: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie excel in madcap romp