PBS (in the US) recently ran Ken Burns’ latest documentary, THE U.S. AND THE HOLOCAUST, an excellent three-part look at America’s role in the Holocaust. While America likes to think of itself as a safe haven for refugees, it certainly failed the Jews in the years and days leading up to World War II. One of the things the documentary deals with is the fact that prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the majority of Americans did not want their country to enter the European war. People like the hugely popular American aviator Charles Lindburgh were pushing the country to be isolationist. More than that though, at the time, there was a very significant following in the German American Bund, an organisation that proudly espoused Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. Writer-director David O. Russell (JOY; AMERICAN HUSTLE) takes a look at a mostly-forgotten page in that country’s history and builds a sometimes comedic mystery around an event that really happened in 1933 with the stylish film noir, AMSTERDAM.
The time is 1932 and Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER; FORD V FERRARI; VICE) is a veteran of the Great War (i.e., WWI for you kids) who treats other veterans who themselves have been shafted by the government that has forgotten about their noble service to the country. He has a prosthetic eye and a back brace, thanks to injuries he received on the battlefield, and he often treats himself with experimental drugs to deal with his pain. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. His best friend is Harold Woodsman (John David Washington, MALCOLM & MARIE; TENET; BLACKKKLANSMAN), a lawyer who served in Berendsen’s unit in the war. One day, Woodsman comes into Berendsen’s office and tells him that he has been hired by Senator Meekins’ daughter, Elizabeth (Taylor Swift), to investigate the untimely death of her father. Woodsman wants Berendsen to assist on an autopsy done by Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña, the GOTG films; AVENGERS: ENDGAME). It’s not long, though, before Elizabeth is murdered by a mysterious red-faced man (Timothy Olyphant, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD; TV’s DEADWOOD), and the pair find themselves on the run. Through a chain of events, they meet the wealthy Tom Voze (Rami Malek, NO TIME TO DIE; BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY) and his wife, Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy, LAST NIGHT IN SOHO; RADIOACTIVE), who suggest they meet General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro) who will be able clear their names with the police. But that’s only half the story as it flashes back to 1920 and Berendsen, Woodsman and fellow soldier Milton King (Chris Rock) are having their war wounds being tended to by a nurse named Valerie (Margot Robbie, THE SUICIDE SQUAD; BOMBSHELL). Berendsen and Woodsman forge an immediate connection with the woman, who introduces them to Englishman Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers, TV’s THE PENTAVERSE) and American Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon, BULLET TRAIN; THE CURRENT WAR), two avid birdwatchers who fit Berendsen with a glass eye. Once the men are able to move about, they along with Valerie head off to Amsterdam where they all live a carefree life until Berendsen and Woodsman decide to return to the US.
Got all that? That’s only part of the plot. AMSTERDAM has an insanely convoluted storyline and audiences can be forgiven for getting lost along the way. If you stick with it though, it eventually all makes sense but it makes for a tedious journey.
Many critics are dumping all over this film with one even calling it the worst of the year. I guess he hasn’t seen some of the films I’ve seen in the past nine months. While AMSTERDAM goes as flat as a Dutch stroopwafel too often, it still has its odd comical moments. The trouble is that they’re too few and far between. It’s really a matter that the film isn’t as witty as it thinks it is, and it doesn’t take a stable genius to figure out what Russell is trying to say here as he hammers his point home a little too hard in the film’s third act. The performances too, are a mixed bag with Robbie and Taylor-Joy outclassing all the others by miles. I’ll give Bale full marks for not just speaking with a New York City accent but singing with one too, but his characterization is a pure rip-off of Peter Falk’s Lt. Frank Columbo, right down to the glass eye, tilt and rumpled hair. The only thing missing is the trench coat and Columbo’s famous tagline, “Just one more thing.” The slight problem is that Berendsen comes from Elmira, not New York City, so the accent, though from the correct state, is wrong. (I’ve been to Elmira a few times and I can tell you that they don’t sound like that.) Bale, though, is not the worst offender. Swift, like her fellow musician Harry Styles (DON’T WORRY DARLING), needs to take some acting lessons before going back on screen. Wow, is she awful. Speaking of which, let’s talk about Rami Malek. He needs to give back his Oscar. Now. As much as I like Rock, especially in a somewhat dramatic role, he falls into his smart-mouthed comedic shtick too many times here. And then there’s Robert De Niro, who really ought to call it a day. If all he’s going to do is show up and sleepwalk though his performances, then directors need to either hold his feet to the fire or not hire him at all. As far as performances go, the big losers are Washington, Saldaña and Olyphant, who are all sorely wasted here.
AMSTERDAM opened in Hong Kong’s cinemas yesterday (October 6). While I don’t think it’s the worst film you’re going to see this year, it’s far from being the best. Wait for it to go to the streaming services.
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