Rated R. At AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway, AMC South Bay and suburban theaters.
An occasionally funny, handsomely mounted, ensemble period mystery and relevant social satire from one of the country’s finest filmmakers, “Amsterdam” is dead on arrival for several reasons. Chief among them is a screenplay by director David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) that is mostly dense exposition and a large cast of characters played by talented actors, who in spite of their talent are difficult to keep track of. One of them is a young woman played by pop star Taylor Swift, who is memorable perhaps for being the first to leave the stage. The film is set mostly in the early 1930s, when American fascists attempt to overthrow the government (yes, that happened).
The action centers upon three buddies, whose lives and loves were never more fulfilling than when they lived together in the eponymous Amsterdam shortly after World War I. The war is where Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) lost an eye and part of his face and replaced the eye with one made of glass. Berendsen’s best friend is the Black veteran Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who was forced to fight in a French uniform because of U.S. racist policies. Speaking French some of the time, Margot Robbie plays valiant nurse Valerie Voze, who breaks her patients Berendsen and Woodman out of the hospital and ends up being their lover and muse. She creates (frankly hideous-looking, perhaps a metaphor) artistic collages using the metal shrapnel she has dug out of soldiers’ bodies. Paging David Cronenberg. With his loopy eye and distracted manner, Berendsen will remind some viewers of Lt. Columbo and the delightful actor Peter Falk, who played him and who really had a glass eye. (I interviewed Falk in New York City once. He was a lovely man.) Berendsen, who also sounds like Al Pacino, is developing new and better ways to treat disfigured soldiers.
Also in the mix are two bird-loving spies played by Michael Shannon and a heavily made up and foreign-accented Michael Myers. Voze, Woodman and Berendsen, who is married to heiress Beatrice Vandenheuvel (English chameleon Andrea Riseborough) move back to the States. Fifteen years later, Bert and Harold are called upon to investigate the murder of the senior officer who introduced them during the war (Ed Begley Jr.), the father of the Swift character, with the mysteriously unhelpful aid of New York City police officers played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola. If I am beginning to lose you, believe me, I was lost as well.
Enter Robert De Niro (Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”) as heroic Gen. Gilbert Dillenbeck. Valerie has been kept drugged and under lock and key by her evil brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). This Daphne du Maurier-esque victimization of Valerie bit runs counter to what we learned about Valerie when she was the valiant nurse and muse, but never mind. Chris Rock appears as Harold’s angry and, of course, funny wing man Milton King.
“Amsterdam” is marvelously shot by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Revenant,” “Birdman,” “Gravity”) and boasts a memorable score by Daniel Pemberton (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”). The entire enterprise, including bits about the Ornithological Society, feels like a failed, if often at times funny and clever, adaptation of a non-existent novel by anti-establishment polymath Thomas Pynchon (“V.” “Gravity’s Rainbow”). The difference is that “Amsterdam” is based on a true story. Unfortunately, that shocking veracity does not do much to save the film from itself.
“Amsterdam” contains violence, gruesome images and profanity.