If it wasn’t for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Amsterdam” would easily be the oddest movie of the year. If it wasn’t for “Everything,” it also would be the most daring, original, and ebulliently eccentric. It starts out confusingly, and thuds for a while toward the end. Otherwise, it’s airborne and just so, like a Wes Anderson movie with muscles and actual human emotion. It’s been seven years since the writer-director David O. Russell’s last movie. At its frequent best, “Amsterdam” makes it worth the wait.
It’s 1933, and we’re in New York. Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and his best friend, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), are a couple of fish out of society’s water — or maybe a different liquid altogether.
Because of wounds he suffered in what is still referred to as the Great War, Burt has a glass eye, wears a back brace, and is partial to painkillers. All of these facts will figure in the plot. The Army was where he met Harold. Burt’s gone from practicing medicine on Park Avenue to doing it way uptown. He’s now a good-guy Dr. Feelgood. His clientele consists mainly of fellow vets for whom he concocts elixirs which sound an awful lot like controlled substances.
The Army is where the two met. Burt, or at least his practice, may be a bit dubious. Harold, an idealistic attorney of great probity and forcefulness, is anything but. But there’s another “but”: Harold is Black. Part of the bond between Burt and Harold is their shared outsider status. Comrades in war, they remain comrades in peace.
Burt’s at his office when Harold summons him to come, and come quick, because he’s been hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to investigate the general’s mysterious death. With the assistance of Irma (Zoe Saldaña), Burt conducts an on-the-fly autopsy. They don’t like what they find. Is suspicious now a better word for the general’s death than mysterious? Trying to answer that question, Burt and Harold witness a murder.
This is barely 10 minutes into “Amsterdam.” Already things are quite breathless. Clearly, Russell doesn’t want the characters or the audience to feel in control. At first, he succeeds too well. Things begin to fall into place, though without at all settling down, with an extended flashback to 1918 and the front lines. Margot Robbie, shows up, as a pipe-smoking nurse named Valerie, and …
Wait a minute. Attentive readers will have noted the starriness of the cast: Bale, Washington, Swift, Saldaña, Robbie. It gets starrier: Robert De Niro, as a general (not the dead one); Rami Malek, as a bird-loving tycoon, and Anya Taylor-Joy, as his wife (her hair’s done up in a braid to end all braids); Mike Myers and Michael Shannon, as spies (spies? yes, spies); Andrea Riseborough, as Burt’s estranged wife; Chris Rock, as Harold’s right-hand man; Timothy Olyphant, as a not-good-guy (expect no further details); Alessandro Nivola, as a cop.
Wait a further minute: a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse (who’s also a proto-Surrealist artist), two generals (one deceased, one otherwise), a pair of spies, a tycoon, and a cop? Movies tend to be vocationally narrow. War movies have soldiers, and that’s about it. Crime movies have cops and crooks, and that’s about it. Spy movies have spies, and that’s about it. Compared to most movies, “Amsterdam” could be an employment agency. All those job titles indicate how hard it is to peg what Russell has come up with. It’s equal parts mystery, comedy, romance, period drama, paranoid thriller (sort of), history lesson, and political cautionary tale.
Those last two might seem somewhat suspect, though the first thing we see in the movie are the words “A Lot of This Really Happened.” Just in case, Russell includes at the end of the movie a brief snippet of newsreel. If you recognize the name General Smedley Butler, you know where things are going. If not, well, who does these days?
That snippet is actual. Earlier, there’s some newsreel footage shot by Russell. Presumably, De Niro hasn’t been seen in black-and-white since “Raging Bull.” It goes along with a brief black-and-white silent movie sequence, which nods to Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” as does a moment from the movie’s highly satisfying conclusion. “Amsterdam” has a plot that pulls out a lot of stops. Stylistically, it pulls out even more. There’s a ton of handheld camera (not a very ‘30s thing, but Russell gets away with it). Strenuous camera angles abound. Visually, “Amsterdam” is almost as much of a high-wire act as the plot. Such stylization is a big reason, though not the only one, for that Wes Anderson comparison. The phenomenal Emmanuel Lubezki (three well-deserved cinematography Oscars so far, not that anyone’s counting) makes it all hang together. Providing further consistency are Daniel Pemberton’s excellent score and Judy Becker’s you-are-there production design.
Becker worked with Russell on “The Fighter” (2010), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), and “American Hustle” (2013). That’s a pretty amazing run. Those movies have a comic energy and unpredictability that recall Preston Sturges. Come to think of it, “Smedley Butler” could be the name of a character in one of Sturges’s more antic flights of fancy.
Bale was in “The Fighter,” winning a best supporting actor Oscar, and “American Hustle,” where he was even better. With his wispy goatee and frizzy hair, he looks here like a cross between Ethan Hawke and Tom Waits. He’s his usual sure-footed self, which is saying something, considering how many pratfalls, literal and otherwise, Burt has to endure. Washington is stalwart and very appealing, though not as appealing as Robbie, who makes it easy to see why Burt and Harold adore Valerie. As for the rest of the cast, Malek is chipper and boyish in a way that nicely sets up certain later developments; and Myers and Shannon are particularly amusing, playing their spy guys with such dryness they could be wearing tennis whites.
As a title, “Amsterdam” is defiantly opaque. It shares a name with a city in the Netherlands, of course. Burt, Harold, and Valerie briefly live there, and with such happiness that the name dominates and warms their memories as bright sun does a winter’s day. Their Amsterdam is more state of mind than actual place. That state of mind — warm, open, questing, alert, in the know, and on the go — is the condition “Amsterdam” aspires to and very often attains.
Written and directed by David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Taylor Swift. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 134 min. R (brief violence and bloody images)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.