Amsterdam tries to do for Amsterdam what Chinatown did for Chinatown: turn a geographical location into a stand-in for a national state of mind. In Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir masterpiece, Chinatown was a place which played by its own set of incomprehensible rules – corruption and depravity couldn’t be fathomed here, let alone thwarted, and ran right to the American social order’s rotten heart.
In David O Russell’s similarly tangled but considerably more optimistic comic thriller – his first film since 2015’s Joy – Amsterdam serves as its idealised opposite. Referring to the Netherlands’ capital (though the ‘New Amsterdam’ settlement which later grew into New York is also clearly on the director’s mind), it’s a place where democratically spirited folk can be united in their loveable differences, and thereby fend off fascism wherever it rears its ugly head. And if that all sounds insufferably smug and heinously laboured – well, that’s because it is.
“A lot of this really happened,” simpers an opening title card – as in American Hustle, his biggest hit to date, Russell is using a half-forgotten historical incident as a springboard for a freewheeling all-star ensemble piece. Here, inspiration has been drawn from the so-called Business Plot of 1933: a planned coup against the US government by business leaders who saw what was brewing in Germany at the time, and liked it.
Into this murky scenario Russell inserts three lowlier and completely fabricated heroes, all brought together by the recent war in Europe. Christian Bale is Burt Berendsen, an ex-soldier now working as a doctor specialising in plastic surgery and painkillers for fellow veterans: with his shock of hair, angular limbs and wonky glass eye, he looks as if he’s stepped off an Egon Schiele canvas. Unfortunately he comes across as less of a bold, expressionistic character study than a Mr Potato Head assembled from actorly tics.
John David Washington is the more level-headed Harold Woodman, Burt’s old army pal and now a successful lawyer. And Margot Robbie is Valerie Voze, a courageous field nurse turned Dora Maar-esque visionary surrealist, who plucked shrapnel from both men’s hides during their military service. An extended flashback shows this trio’s lifelong friendship being cemented during a carefree postwar spell in Amsterdam, though considering the calibre of the leads, their Jules et Jim-like triangle has depressingly little spark or heat.
Back in New York, Harold is hired to investigate the suspicious death of a senator (Ed Begley Jr), whose anxious daughter (Taylor Swift) soon also meets a startling fate in a scene which feels laser-designed to become a viral animated gif. Burt and Harold become prime suspects in the subsequent investigation, which of course turns out to be connected to the broader political machinations afoot.
Before the picture clears, however, our heroes must ride out an onslaught of only occasionally funny supporting eccentrics: Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as two ornithologically inclined secret agents; Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy as a preening society couple with screwball affectations; Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as bungling detectives. The trail finally leads to Robert De Niro’s General Gil Dillenbeck – apparently the only man in the country able to wrangle the preceding narrative muddle into a semi-intelligible shape.
The churn of confusion is presumably meant to tantalise and goad in a Big Sleep sort of way, but Russell’s script makes heavy weather of the mystery. There’s little flair to the dialogue, flourishes often feel suspiciously like sticking plasters (Bale’s showiest internal monologue is essentially a plot recap), while the central conspiracy itself isn’t complex so much as just relentlessly skirted around. Amsterdam might encompass 15 years of history, straddle two continents and throw in innumerable subplots, but it becomes increasingly hard to shake the sense that you’re watching a very thin idea twiddling its thumbs.
Cert tbc, 134 mins. Cinemas from Friday October 7