A movie like Amsterdam might have been more popular if it had been more upfront about its plot in the marketing. Instead, 20th Century, the studio distributing it decided to focus on the big names in the cast which include Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, Rami Malek, Taylor Swift, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Chris Rock, Robert DeNiro, Zoe Saldana and John David Washington as well as many others. It’s quite a cast that has really nothing much for them to do.
The plot is hidden behind some quirky mystery comedy caper that never seems as funny or amusing as David O. Russell, who wrote and directed, thinks. I say the movie might have been more popular because it’s about the 1933 Business Plot, a now-very much forgotten conspiracy by some of the wealthiest people of the time to have a popular, decorated war general assemble support among World War I veterans to more or less overthrow Franklin D. Rooslevelt as President. Sound familiar? If you’ve been in a coma since Jan. 5, 2021, you might wonder why it’s so topical?
Set in 1933 New York City, Burt Berendsen (Bale) is a WWI vet practicing as a doctor. He was wounded in battle and his face is badly scarred with a glass eye in right socket. His war buddy is Harold Woodman (Washington), now a lawyer. Burt caters to war vets and is in a marriage to Beatrice Vandenheuvel (Andrea Riseborough) but she seems to show him no affection and is more worried about appearance. Harold struck up a romance with a nurse, Valerie Voze (Robbie), during his recovery from being wounded. Using Valerie’s forgery skills, they went to go live in Amsterdam for some time with Burt.
However, after the war, Burt and Harold have lost contact with Valerie. One day, Harold asks Burt to perform an autopsy on Sen. Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who was their command general in the war. With the help from his assistant, Irma St. Clair (Saldana), they discover Meekins had poison in his stomach. His daughter, Elizabeth (Swift), believes he was murdered and when Harold an Burt go to meet with her outside a movie theater, she is pushed into outcoming traffic by a hitman, Tarim Milfax (Timothy Olyphant), and killed. Milfax is quick to blame Harold and Burt to create a public panic.
Accused of murder, they begin a Chandler-esque style of tracking down what exactly happened. They are questioned by Dets. Hiltz (Alessandro Nivola) who is skeptical and a bit racist toward Harold and Lem Getwiller (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is more sympathetic because he’s also a patient of Burt’s. They also have a connection through glass manufacturers (and two spies they met while in Amsterdam. Henry Norcross (Shannon) is a U.S. Naval intelligence officer and Paul Canterbury (Myers) is with M16.
Eventually, they track down who connected Elizabeth to them to wealthy textile owner, Tom Voze (Rami Malek), who is the brother of Valerie, much to their surprise as she now suffers from a nerve disorder that affects her balance. She is also the bane of the existence to Tom’s wife, Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy), who thinks she should be in the hospital for her nerve disease rather than wondering around their big mansion.
Tom suggests they speak to Gill Dillenbeck (DeNiro), a popular retired general. Dillenbeck is based on Smedley Butler, a major general in the Marine Corps, who was approached by a group of wealthy industrialists to organize a military coup to overthrow FDR. This was during 1933 when Adolf Hitler had just been hired as Chancellor of Germany. Butler testified before Congress but his accusations were mostly dismissed or not taken seriously until years later. And you don’t have to be a genius to think that they approached Meekins first about this and then had him poisoned.
The plot keeps bouncing around and the actors seem to spring up in scenes because the movie wants to remind us that Rock is in the cast. He appears briefly as Milton King in the WWI part and then pops up toward the end as does Myers and Shannon. It’s an interesting plot that is never really held together by any cohesive except for the fact that Russell couldn’t think of better segues between scenes. I’ve heard people say it’s a Shaggy Dog story and at about two hours and 15 minutes with credits, it would’ve worked better as a quirky 90-minute movie.
This is Russell’s first movie since Joy in 2015, which was about a woman who invented a new style of mop. That movie was a bit long too. Russell seems to be more focused on his characters and sometimes that’s a good thing. I like the scene in Silver Linings Playbook where DeNiro’s character tells someone which hands he has to hold the reports in as they watch a football game because it shows how superstitous sports fans can be.
Amsterdam had a budget of about $80 million and only made $31 million and is rumored to lose about $100 million when you include marketing and other items. There’s a nice story hidden here but the delivery doesn’t tell it the right way. I’m sure by the second hour, most people would be so bored they’d stop watching.
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