Saturday April 22, 2023
Movie Review: Amsterdam (2022)
How many actors have spent an entire movie imitating another actor who has nothing to do with the movie? Kurt Russell doing Clint Eastwood in “Escape from New York” comes to mind. Anyone else? Feels like there’s more but I’m drawing a blank.
In “Amsterdam,” Christian Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a Jewish doctor and wounded Great War veteran who tends to the wounds of other Great War veterans in 1933 New York. His friends include other vets such as Harold Woodman, Esq. (John David Washington) and Milton King (Chris Rock), and initially I was worried this was another example of color-blind casting in a historical setting. Not a fan of that. As if we can just level history. As if we can raise an entire generation thinking the Civil Rights Movement weren’t no big deal since everyone’s been the same forever and ever. Wait, and Zoe Saldana is a coroner, too? And they’re all hanging with … is that Taylor Swift? Wow, this cast. But c’mon.
Thank god Chris Rock says something about the dangers of Black men hanging in a room with a white woman and a dead white body. So not quite color blind. But definitely wishful thinking.
Washington has never done much for me. He’s the son of Denzel, given two dull first names rather than one memorable one, and he’s twice dull rather than once memorable. Sorry. His father had snap; he snapped you to attention. Maybe I’m being too tough on the son. What am I basing it off of? This and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” Maybe I need to see Chris Nolan’s “Tenet.” Top directors seem to dig him.
Anyway, early on I thought, “Oh, Christian Bale is doing a Jewish accent.” But I began to realize he wasn’t doing general Jewish but particular Jewish. He was doing someone. Drove me crazy. I kept flashing on Martin Short as Jiminy Glick doing Larry David to Larry David—and, to be honest, that’s not far off. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realize it. Or I did but dismissed it. At one point, he was crouched over, looking up, and I went “Peter Falk? No.” Yes. Bale is doing Peter Falk throughout. And it’s fun but also distracting.
But not as distracting as Zoe Saldana.
The movie’s not much, which is a shame because it should be something. It should’ve resonated hugely.
It’s framed as a mystery. Did someone kill their former platoon leader Gen. Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), and why, and why kill his daughter (Taylor Swift), too? The dude from “Deadwood” (Timothy Olyphant), with crazy eyes and bad hair, pushes her into traffic, then blames the Jew and the Negro, and mobs being mobs, everyone goes along. So our heroes are on the run during perilous times but their own investigation doesn’t feel sharp; it feels soft and blurry. She says something about Rose? Or Voze? The Vozes are richie riches. But first we get an extended flashback about how our principles know each other.
Woodman and King were both in the All-Black 369th Infantry Regiment fighting in France, but their superior officer is a cracker. So Gen. Meekins, a kindly man, brings in Berendsen, another kindly man, whose gentile in-laws want him dead anyway. Nearly happens. But Woodman saves Berendsen, and Berendsen saves Woodman, and they both become friends with a crazy beautiful nurse, Valerie (Margot Robbie), who makes trinkets out of the torn metal she pulls from soldiers’ bodies. She and Woodman wind up romantically linked, and all three party for a while in Amsterdam, the idyllic place that allows such partying in 1918. But then Berendsen has to return to the States. Something about loving Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), the awful woman whose upper-crust family is even awful-er. And for some reason Woodman has to return, too. Maybe because that partying in Amsterdam actually looks kind of dull.
At the Voze estate in 1933, guess who they run into? Valerie! She’s a Voze, but suffering medical/mental issues. And yes, she was the one who suggested Taylor Swift seek out Woodman and Berendsen. So that mystery is solved. But what to do now? Valerie’s brother Tom (Rami Malek) suggests they contact the legendary Gen. Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), who might be helpful in exonerating them. Um, how? But OK? Along the way, they also find out something about the Committee of the Five, or the Committee for the Sound Dollar, that is involved in a kind of eugenics and has a weird symbol—a combo of “C” and “5” that looks like it might be a drunk version of a swastika. Which … yes.
At some point, trying to figure out the plot, I’m thinking, “OK, so is it a bunch of richie riches who don’t like FDR’s New Deal and like what Hitler is doing in Germany, and want to bring Fascism to the U.S.?” Bingo. Better, it’s actually based on a historical incident, the Business Plot or Wall Street Putsch of 1933, in which businessmen apparently wanted Gen. Smedley Butler to take over from FDR as an emergency measure. But he spilled the beans on them—just as Gen. Dillenbeck does here. The question is: Who’s the betrayer? Turns out: Tom. Rami Malek. Shocking. Meekins was going to spill the beans, too, which is why he was killed. His daughter learned of it, which, ditto. Berendsen and Woodman were allowed to live because the Committee wanted Dillenbeck on board, and as decorated war vets they had a better chance of reaching him.
Given Trump, Jan. 6, Proud Boys and Fox News, this should resonate, but it doesn’t. Not close. It’s historic horror overlayed with contemporary feel-good. True, nothing happens to the Committee, as in real life, but Berendsen finally blows off Beatrice for the shockingly gorgeous Irma St. Clair (Saldana), and Woodman and Valerie are reunited, and they all have their own little Amsterdam in 1930s NYC.
Meanwhile, across the ocean…
But what fun seeing Matthias Schoenaerts again! He plays the good cop. I haven’t seen him since “The Mustang” in 2019, which feels like forever ago. Also Michael Shannon as a T-Man. When did I last …? Right, “Knives Out” in 2019. Mike Myers should act more. He has a bit part as undercover MI-6 with a bird fetish, and he’s fun. Zoe Saldana should let us see her face more. She’s a good actress, too. Christian Bale is amazing. All for nothing.
This is David O. Russell’s first movie since “Joy” in 2015, which I never saw, and which came on the heels of “American Hustle” in 2013, which I loved. So I haven’t seen Russell in 10 years. A bad 10 years. I wish he’d had something more profound to say about it than “Amsterdam.”