“A lot of this really happened,” teases the opening card of David O. Russell’s unruly ensemble comedy “Amsterdam,” a loony early-’30s social satire that goes cartwheeling through a little-remembered episode in American history when fascists tried to overthrow the U.S. government. Russell clearly sees parallels between this alarming chapter of the nation’s past and our present, as national divisions threaten to overwhelm American democracy, but the writer-director has complicated the plot — the movie’s plot, that is, not the greater conspiracy on which it turns — to such a degree that audiences are bound to be bewildered. Instead of wondering which parts are true and which ones invented, they’re likely to find themselves asking, “What the hell is happening?” for the better part of 134 minutes.
A certain amount of confusion is neither unusual nor unwelcome in comedic capers and whodunits, where the fun so often stems from being bounced around by surprising developments (what happens to Taylor Swift in this film qualifies as such a twist). Back in free-wheeling “American Hustle” mode, Russell has an appetite for chaos that can be uniquely exhausting, and even though this oddball ensemble boasts intelligent ideas and a smorgasbord of against-type performances from A-list names, “Amsterdam” amounts to less than the sum of its parts.
The film centers on a friendship between three Americans drawn into an elaborate political intrigue. The trio were never happier than when they lived together in Amsterdam after the Great War. Encouraged to enlist (and perchance to die) by his high-society in-laws, Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) lost an eye and half his face in conflict, but gained a lifelong amigo in Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a Black soldier who — and this is among the film’s “this really happened” details — was obliged to fight in French uniform since American troops refused to integrate.
Burt and Harold were both badly wounded in conflict, but had the good fortune to meet a spirited nurse named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) during their recovery. Bale burrows deep into this latest character, assuming the disheveled look and distracted manner of a young Peter Falk (right down to Burt’s wonky glass eye, which never quite aligns with the working one), while Washington seems strangely superficial by comparison, his face fixed in that same blank expression that’s fast becoming his signature. Robbie dazzles right away with her defiance, speaking French (enough to confuse us as to her character’s origins) as she breaks the boys out of the field hospital — the Jeanne Moreau to their Jules and Jim.
Valerie collects shrapnel from her patients, but instead of discarding these fragments, she keeps the twisted metal for artistic projects: teapots made of bomb parts and surrealist photo collages of the kind that Man Ray and Grete Stern produced in the 1930s. Burt’s also something of a sculptor — of the medical arts — rebuilding the faces of other disfigured veterans (while testing experimental painkillers on himself). For a brief, glorious moment in Amsterdam, the friends are spared the stresses of their lives — and wife (Andrea Riseborough), in Burt’s case — back in America, their shenanigans somehow enabled or underwritten by two ornithophile spies (Michael Shannon and Mike Myers, the latter heavily disguised and accented), who promise, “We’ll come a-calling at some point in the future.”
Alas, the trio’s carefree days of dancing the Charleston among the Dutch are numbered — and just as well, since this cutesy segment of the story feels overly indebted to Wes Anderson, and not in a good way (e.g., inventing a nonsense song around the French word that makes everyone laugh: “pamplemousse”). Most of the film takes place 15 years later, in New York (New Amsterdam?) in late 1933, as Burt and Harold agree to investigate the suspicious death of the superior officer who introduced them, only to be framed for murder in the process. While the case doesn’t seem to be of terribly pressing urgency to the police (as detectives, stars Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola deliver broad character-actor performances), the pair are determined to clear their names, which brings them back in contact with Valerie.
Russell cooks up plenty of high-end kookiness (which is to say, comedic situations set in the hallways and drawing rooms of polite-society houses, like something out of a Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch classic, as opposed to flat-out farce), but through it all, the bonds between these three characters are meant to be the thing that keeps us invested. Russell has miscalculated something there, however, since the 15-year separation between the friends is resolved before they even have time to miss one another in the movie, and whatever chemistry existed between Harold and Valerie’s characters never quite manifests on-screen.
The murder business never feels very urgent, but we’re alarmed to discover that since her return, Valerie has been kept drugged up and locked indoors, under the pretense of a “hereditary nervous disorder,” by brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife, Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). Those two have some troubling political beliefs that are better left discovered in the film, though it’s worth stating that the New York Veterans Reunion where everything climaxes was inspired by a real-life event. The evening’s guest speaker, played by Robert De Niro, was inspired by real-life war hero Major Gen. Smedley Butler, who exposed a conspiracy dubbed the Business Plot.
Russell is right to remind Americans of this shameful moment in their past (skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers), as history books tend to downplay the amount of stateside support that Mussolini and Hitler had in the lead-up to World War II. In his novel “The Plot Against America” (adapted for HBO around the same time “Amsterdam” was filming), Philip Roth imagines an alternate history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated by a Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh. Here, Russell spotlights more dastardly plans to actually remove the president from office. Production designer Judy Becker (who does terrific work on the film’s myriad period locations) drew inspiration from 1930s rallies, like the one Marshall Curry documented in his Oscar-nominated doc short “A Night at the Garden,” right down to the George Washington portrait hanging behind the dais.
Russell’s truth-will-out, think-for-yourself political message is ultimately what makes “Amsterdam” appealing, though the film is being marketed largely on the popular appeal of its cast. That’s a risky prospect for such an expensive picture, considering that hardly any of the stars delivers the thing that fans love most about their personas — except perhaps Chris Rock, who gets to crack wise about white supremacy. It’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose swooning mix of Steadicam and handheld techniques lent an almost godlike grandeur to recent films by Terrence Malick and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, though that fluid style combines rather oddly with Russell’s more erratic comedic sensibilities.
The result has all the red flags of a flop, but takes a strong enough anti-establishment stand — and does so with wit and originality — to earn a cult following. There’s too much ambition here to write the movie off, even if “Amsterdam,” like the history it depicts, winds up taking years to be rediscovered and understood.