Whimsical, weird and damn wonderful
Amsterdam (M, 134mins) Directed by David O. Russell ★★★★
Reviewed by James Croot
Fixing faces, lifting spirits, singing songs. Since his own traumatic experience in World War I, New York doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) has dedicated his life – and 138th St practice – to helping his fellow veterans. But while those from his 369th Regiment and others have always appreciated his efforts, his experimental pain medications haven’t always found favour with the state’s medical board. As his best friend since they served together in France, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) warns him, ‘‘they’re going to put you away, if they don’t close you down first’’.
However, on this day in 1933, there are far more pressing matters. Harold has been hired by wealthy socialite Elizabeth Meekins (a surprisingly impressive Taylor Swift) to investigate the death of her father – current senator, their former army superior and a ‘‘Graham Cracker of a man’’ – Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.).
Not buying the official line that her father died of natural causes while overseas, she’s managed to secure his body for a couple of hours before he is embalmed – and she wants an autopsy. It’s a request Burt initially baulks at.
‘‘I’ve only conducted two – one to prove I didn’t leave a clamp on someone’s small intestine and one to remove a clamp on someone’s small intestine.’’
Fortunately, he knows someone with a little more experience – Irma St Clair (Zoe Saldana) – who is more than willing to conduct the required examination.
However, when Burt and Harold rush to meet Elizabeth at their pre-agreed time and place with the news that her father may well have been poisoned as she suspected, she flees, admitting to fearing for her own life.
That becomes all to real as they catch up with her outside a crowded theatre, just in time to see her pushed under a car. Things go from bad to worse though, as in the ensuing panic, Harold and Burt somehow become the chief suspects and are forced to flee the scene.
Trying to make sense of it all and desperate to find themselves a way out of trouble they feel they may not survive, a tip leads them to the home of mysterious businessman Tom Voze (Rami Malek) – and a face from their past they had never expected to see again.
David O. Russell’s (Silver Linings Playbook, Joy, American Hustle) first film in seven years is a welcome reminder of the kind of adult drama that has been in short supply in Hollywood recently.
This is a complex, characterdriven conspiracy tale that’s full of twists and turns, memorable moments and more than one message that should resonate with modern-day audiences.
As well as offering up the notion that real love is the difference between needing and choosing someone, Russell’s screenplay is also very much a warning not to let ‘‘the big men’’ take your country away from you. For while this whimsical, weird and kind of damn wonderful crime caper may seem supremely far-fetched, the movie’s initial title card that ‘‘a lot of this really happened’’ is – incredibly – no idle boast. To say any more, though, would ruin some of the delights of Russell’s carefully crafted story that feels like the love child of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and a Coen Brothers black comedy.
Of course, it helps immensely that Russell has managed to assemble such a magnificent ensemble.
As well as allowing Bale a chance to show off his comedy chops, this also features Margot Robbie as a pipe-smoking nurse who creates war-inspired art, Michaels Shannon and Myers as not-so-secret spies, Robert De Niro as ‘‘the most decorated marine in history’’ and Anya Taylor-Joy as his greatest fan.
Amsterdam won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s easy to become lost in its myriad characters, fractured narrative and sheer nuttiness. But, with his tight framing, point-of-view shots and low-camera angles, Russell does a terrific job of drawing you into the narrative and, for those willing to run with it, an absorbing – and truly rewarding – good time.
❚ Amsterdam is now screening in cinemas nationwide.