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Business (Plot) before pleasure – ‘Amsterdam’

October 10, 2022
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Have you ever asked yourself what the difference between “based on” and “inspired by” actually is?

It’s always tricky when it comes to movies, because obviously, filmmakers want (and should want) a degree of creative license with which to tell their stories. We’re not talking about documentaries here – these are fictionalized features, bearing as much or as little direct resemblance to their inspirations as deemed fit by the folks behind the camera. We can talk about based on or inspired by, but ultimately it comes down to this:

How true is the true story? And how true do we need it to be?

This brings us to “Amsterdam,” the latest film – and first in seven years – from writer/director David O. Russell. It’s clear early on that this one falls into the “inspired by” camp, with an opening title card that flat-out states “A lot of this really happened.” It should be noted, however, that the words “a lot” are doing A LOT of heavy lifting.

It’s got the standard galaxy of A-listers that we’ve come to expect from Russell’s movies, the sort of absolutely stacked cast that always seems to turn up. It blends comedic quirks with dramatic stakes and tries very hard to give its many stars a chance to shine.

Loosely (and I do mean loosely) based on the alleged Business Plot of the early 1930s, “Amsterdam” is a shaggy screwball mystery wrapped around a nugget of bleak historical truth. And while I myself found it charming and engaging, the meandering nature of the plot and the often-questionable relationship to the “real” events on which it is based might well prove a turn-off to others. As with many of Russell’s movies, your mileage may vary.

In the early 1930s, Burt Berenson (Christian Bale) is a New York City doctor. Largely discredited, he works on the margins, aiming his services directly at veterans. He himself is disabled, having lost an eye in France during World War I, so he has a real connection to the lost and listless among his fellow servicemen. His best friend is Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), an attorney dealing with his own marginalization – he’s a Black man – even as he does his best to work with Burt.

The two are enlisted by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) to investigate the death of her father, their former commanding officer. Liz suspects foul play – suspicions that are rendered all the more plausible both by autopsy results and the tragedy that ultimately befalls her.

We flash back to 1918, where we see the first meeting between Burt and Harold as Burt takes over command of an all-Black regiment; among the soldiers is Milton (Chris Rock), who will also maintain a friendship with them in the future. Both Burt and Harold are injured in the same incident – badly injured - and nursed back to health by a diligent nurse named Valerie (Margot Robbie).

As the two men start to heal, they become closer to each other and to Valerie. So close, in fact, that they wind up making their way to Amsterdam, where they while away an idyllic time even as they wind up meeting guys like Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) and Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) – guys who are definitely not spies *winkwink*. Burt and Harold wind up back in America, losing track of Valerie upon their return.

Back in the ‘30s, our heroes find themselves the subject of some unwanted attention from the police regarding the Seekins situation. In an effort to clear their names, they start putting some pieces together, leading them from wealthy textile heirs to retired generals to massive veteran rallies that may or may not be central to a plot by wealthy industrialists to oust FDR in a coup d’etat. You know – the usual.

Honestly, I could spend another thousand words on the plot particulars of “Amsterdam” – there’s a lot going on here – but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, such as they are, we’ll stop here.

There’s something inherently charming about a well-done period piece, one where the production design is properly executed and gives the viewer that sense of being dropped into another time. “Amsterdam” does that quite well, really evoking the spirit of the time and place in which it operates. It’s a very good-looking film.

Now, as for the narrative, that gets a little tricky. See, by the very nature of the true events that inspired the film, "Amsterdam” was bound to be rather convoluted. There is a lot of back-and-forth and to-and-fro baked into the story, so it stands to reason that condensing things might lead to a bit of confusion. This is one of those films where you’re better off simply going along for the ride rather than trying to unsnarl things as you go; the threads are tangled and somewhat messy and not all of them are tied off as neatly or effectively as you might hope.

I should note that I don’t mean to imply that the film is tough to follow – it isn’t, not really. Just a touch convoluted at times.

Of course, Russell films are at their best when they’re content to simply vibe with their always-excellent casts. That hangout energy is where "Amsterdam” is at its absolute apex, particularly when we’re dealing with some combination of the Bale/Washington/Robbie trio. The shared chemistry is delightful, so much so that you’re almost disappointed when we start reengaging with the plot writ large.

Bale’s jittery, mumbling Burt Berenson is a delight. He is fragile and vulnerable and hilarious, all while also displaying a constant courage that invites us to root for him fervently. Washington is still finding his way as an actor, but he utilizes his natural charisma to good effect here. Robbie is a delight, equal parts ethereal and earthy – an early-1930s manic pixie dream girl. And again, the three of them together are wonderful.

But then there’s the supporting cast. Myers and Shannon steal every scene they’re in, combining to portray a winking officiousness that works wonderfully. Rock is charming, though he feels very much out of place in the era being presented. And there are so many more that I haven’t even mentioned. Robert DeNiro takes a phenomenal turn in the film’s back half. Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy are an exquisite snapshot of entitled elitism. Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant – this ensemble is utterly stacked.

Now, if you want to argue about the actual merits of the Business Plot, have at it. I’m no historian. However, it seems safe to say that the statement “A lot of this actually happened” is a bit of an exaggeration, with much of that reality existing on the margins of the mystery narrative at the center of “Amsterdam.”

This film is not without its flaws, but a lot of those issues are papered over by the quality of the production design and the dynamite cast. “Amsterdam” might not quite reach the heights to which it aspires, but as “inspired by” goes, you could do a lot worse.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 10 October 2022 15:05

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