With Amsterdam, David O. Russell throws spaghetti against the wall, and God bless him for it
DAvid O. Russell makes movies the way McDonald’s makes Big Macs: his movies, like their burgers, are big, sloppy, calorie-packed, and utterly irresistible to America’s appetite.
Since graduating from the low-key funky comedies he started his career with, including spank the monkey (1994) and Flirting with disaster (1996), Russell produced a series of bold, sweeping and ungraceful films that capture something of the strangeness and wildness of the American experience. I Heart Huckabees (2004) was a shaggy dog tale that improbably evoked both continental philosophy and local consumerism. The masterful american hustle (2013) was a cacophonous eulogy from con artists around the world. In his best films, Russell overflows with characters, incidents, stylistic excesses, narratives, twists and turns.
Russell only falters when his subjects lack the size to support his expansive vision: accidental love (2015), a troubled production from which Russell took his name off, was a weak look at pre-Obamacare health care, while Joy (2015), David O. Russell’s last film before amsterdamwas an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to extract something meaningful from the story of home shopping pitcher Joy Mangano.
Whether Joy has been artificially inflated, however, Russell’s latest film is positively overloaded: blending the seemingly incompatible genres of war film, murder mystery, slimy comedy and Frank Capra-esque ode to the United States of America. America, amsterdamwhich Russell wrote and directed, gives us the lives and times of eccentric doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), honest lawyer Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and quirky nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who first crossed paths in 1918 during the bloody days of World War I. They diverged in the decade that followed and converged again in 1933, when American democracy was tested in the form of challenges to the legitimacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.
None of this is told chronologically, but Russell bases the film on a series of warmly rendered, moderately paced flashbacks set during and immediately after the war. Like few films in memory, amsterdam captures how bonds can form during times of hardship: when brothers-in-arms Burt and Harold are injured and exiled to hospital, they are cared for by Valérie, a fake Frenchwoman who is actually a member of Mid-Atlantic American aristocracy. Her penchant for avant-garde art – she could be a future Gloria Vanderbilt, a “poor little rich girl” who fancies herself an artist – includes the accumulation of shrapnel she extracts from her patients for further use in multimedia projects.
The duo officially becomes a trio when Burt, Harold and Valerie head to post-war Amsterdam, touted for its tolerance of unconventional living conditions. Although Valérie, who also smokes a pipe and sings “absurd songs”, comes a little too close to a carbon copy of Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, the relationship between the three is really beautiful. “Never again should I pour two without a third,” Valerie says of sharing drinks not just with Harold but also with Burt — a charming and heartfelt epitome of the film’s vision of friendship. (Get ready for some of the movie’s most satisfying ASMR when, in a neat little edit, Robbie drops those shrapnel into metal containers.)
At the end of the interregnum in Amsterdam, Valerie disappears, but Burt and Harold maintain their brotherly feeling back in New York. Given the turmoil of his stepfather’s medical practice for his insistence on meeting the needs of returning soldiers, Burt, who is married, operates a kind of ersatz clinic in which drugs are generously dispensed and fake parties of the body, including Burt’s fake eyeball proliferates. Harold supports Burt in this endeavor, which is rooted in Burt’s simple rhetorical question. “How can I not help the veterans? he asks, sounding a bit like a certain former president who often proclaims, “We love our veterans. (This is probably not intended by Russell, but it is.) Either way, here’s a movie that bares the horrors of war – rarely has a comedy shown so much blood and so much lost members – while celebrating the alliances that may form in its wake.
The film is made to a very high standard. Christian Bale, who seems to love shape shifts in body type, sports a skeletal face and lanky figure that brings out his character’s energy and enthusiasm. The closeness between Washington and Robbie credibly suggests what Kurt Vonnegut would have called “a nation of two.” Surrounding them at all times are a cast of imaginatively crafted and relishingly played supporting characters, including Mike Myers as a gregarious MI6 official, Michael Shannon as a no-nonsense CIA agent , Zoe Saldana as the sweet autopsy nurse and Rami Malek. and Anya Taylor-Joy as Valerie’s inscrutable brother and dimwitted, nervous step-sister, respectively. Delicious, too, is Russell’s swirling, prowling camera, which jumps and weaves and picks up small details or bits of action, from American flags fluttering in the air outside the Waldorf Astoria to the innards of a corpse.
Russell sees history as a series of romances, like the trio in Amsterdam, interrupted by periods of conflict and struggle. This thesis is more or less stated by the characters, and it is certainly a valid perspective. Yet the way it plays out in the film proves almost fatal. Amid Burt and Harold’s efforts on behalf of the veterans, they enter into a tangled conspiracy orchestrated by the Fascist Committee of Five, which openly draws inspiration from the real 1933 Business Plot involving wealthy tycoons seeking to bring down FDR. . The diabolical efforts of the Committee of Five result in two deaths, nearly lead to murder charges for our two innocent heroes, and are about to entangle a noble pro-democracy general, Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro).
The plots, intrigues and assorted double-dealing are up to Russell, but the film becomes unusually solemn and serious during this period. The Committee of Five’s anti-democratic shenanigans are clearly aimed at evoking mundane, modern MSNBC talking points about alleged threats to democracy from MAGA’s Republicans, and the story nearly stops to indulge in Dillenbeck’s sermons. . De Niro, a proud Trump critic who seems to imagine the American public needs late-career actors to swear at them how to vote, often seems to give less of a performance than a message of public service on camera. Those of us who admire De Niro as an actor are willing to put his politics aside, so why can’t he?
We don’t want a lecture in a movie by the great Russell. We want the kind of image that finds room for Taylor Swift and Chris Rock in cameo performances, and Mike Myers showing up with a box full of fake eyeballs – the crazy quilt of surprises and gimmicks and fun that represents two-thirds of amsterdam. By being part of a small world of neurotics obsessed with politics for a small part of his time, amsterdam undermines its own philosophy. But what a philosophy! Chaos, fun and beautiful absurdity are still present for most of this film from a director like no other.
Peter Tonguette is a writer who has contributed to the Washington Examiner magazine.