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MRQE Top Critic

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At times Amsterdam struggles under the weight of its own complexity, but the remarkable cast proves worthy of the challenge.

A Nonsense Song

Three friends
Three friends

While Amsterdam isn’t perfect, it is nonetheless fantastic for what it accomplishes. It’s a very intricate and creative expression of two important messages: history repeats itself and life is always worth living.

Within the confines of this story (as the opening title card notes, “a lot of this actually happened”), there’s the wind-down from the War to End All Wars. It’s unfathomable to the lead characters — who survived the trenches but came home less than whole — that another war of such magnitude could possibly break out ever again, let alone a mere two decades later.

But there’s much more going on here than the movie’s post-WWI setting. It’s rich with ideas, notions and details. Racism, medicinal experimentation, women’s rights, fascism, political coups, subterfuge and new ways to live. Wow. Sound familiar? Is Amsterdam set in 2022 or 1922?

The story spans from 1918-1933. And, yes, history is repeating itself (again) right here, right now.

As a key hook, writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) latches on to a speech given to Congress in 1933 by Major General Smedley Butler, a highly decorated marine. It outed a plot to overthrow FDR and — right before the end credits roll — vintage footage of Butler making his address is played side-by-side with Robert DeNiro delivering the same speech, but as his fictional character, General Gil Dillenbeck.

As Russell describes it, Amsterdam is about making sense out of the nonsense of history. And in that regard, it shines brightly.

War Is a Racket

The cast alone really is worth the price of admission. It’s a who’s who of who’s “in” today. Christian Bale — who previously teamed with Russell on American Hustle and The Fighter — takes the lead as Burt Berendsen, a one-eyed doctor, and it’s no surprise he delivers another fully imagined and memorable character. But the rest of the cast is also stunning. Margot Robbie. John David Washington. Chris Rock. Rami Malek. Anya Taylor-Joy. Zoe Saldana. Taylor Swift (no need to snicker; she’s good in her small role). Mike Myers. Michael Shannon. Ed Begley, Jr. (the weak link here, but at least his speaking role is smaller than Swift’s; he seems out of whack lately with an unnatural, off-kilter line delivery that’s also on display in Young Sheldon). And, yeah, there’s also DeNiro.

They all play in a colorful world revolving around a murder mystery. Burt Berendsen (Bale) and Harold Woodman (Washington) were soldiers in the regiment of General Bill Meekins (Begley). Under mysterious circumstances, Bill winds up in a wood box and his daughter, Liz (Swift), hires Burt and Harold to get to the bottom of her father’s death.

From there, quite a rich tapestry unfolds. At times, Amsterdam feels like Russell is tipping his hat to Baz Luhrmann with the theme of living a life of beauty and love. There’s also an artistic, visual sensibility that channels Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Amsterdam starts off like gangbusters and when it has its mojo going in full force, it’s cinematic bliss. The problem is that energy isn’t sustained consistently throughout the movie’s runtime.

The 369

The murder mystery takes the center stage, but Amsterdam plays out something like a three-ring circus.

The best, most inspirational bits come from the relationship between Burt, Harold and Valerie Voze (Robbie). Initiated in Belgian medical wards, it flourishes in Amsterdam, where the three enter a pact to put their past lives behind them. They agree Amsterdam is in the heart and it’s also where this movie drifts — enjoyably — into a world of truth, beauty, freedom and love akin to Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

Throw in a complicating layer of entanglements involving Burt’s family back in New York and the circus analogy becomes all the more appropriate. There’s a lot to juggle here and it all comes to a head in a way that ominously foreshadows what at the start was unfathomable: the rise of Adolf Hitler and the world-altering chaos of World War II.

Russell deserves kudos for crafting this wild tale of historical fiction. Perhaps the real kicker — and the most rewarding component — is the movie’s summary statement: life is always worth living no matter how tough it gets. Whether it’s 1922 or 2022, that’s a sentiment worth repeating over and over.