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Amsterdam's Mystery without Surprise



AMSTERDAM. When David O. Russell entered popular consciousness — with Spanking the Monkey (1994), an Oedipal rom-com that almost immediately went into heavy rotation on the Independent Film Channel — he was not accompanied by the fanfare that greeted some of his anointed indie-cinema contemporaries. Granted, he was one among many, but he was also (and continues to be) possessed of a heady nerdiness, an internalized sense of absurdity that was not as immediately crowd-pleasing as some of the splashier stuff borne of the Sundance era. Still, he found a footing in the industry, thanks to talent, work ethic and, I suspect, pugnacity. Following his debut, he went on a pretty exciting run (at least by movie nerd standards), writing and directing: Flirting with Disaster (1996), one of the few modern screwball comedies to actually evince some of the wit and velocity of its influences; Three Kings (1999), a treasure hunt action-comedy set against the injustice of the first Gulf War; and I Heart Huckabees (2004), an exploration of commercialism and philosophy that defies description.

Along the way, Russell emerged as something of a problematic figure, even in the coal-fired days of the early internet. George Clooney famously chin-checked him on the set of Three Kings, rumor had it, in defense of the less-famous cast and crew. In a video that went viral before we even used the expression, he attempted to shout down Lily Tomlin while filming Huckabees; he was, not surprisingly, unsuccessful.

In 2010, Russell directed The Fighter, a departure from his usual pan-genre meta-commentary that would become his biggest critical and commercial hit. While that project forged a fruitful collaboration with star Christian Bale (himself sometimes accused of being difficult on-set), it also ushered in an increasingly spotty, perhaps indulgent period in Russell's career. While Silver Linings Playbook (2012) was widely acclaimed on its release, the years have not been kind. And American Hustle (2013) and Joy (2015) — well, they might be a little less than the sum of their dazzling parts.

Amsterdam arrives at a curious moment. The movie business being what it is (which is not what it once was), releasing a staggeringly star-heavy anti-fascist murder mystery — a period piece, no less — seems like a bold, if ill-advised gamble. But Russell, perhaps raging against the dying of the light, had made a characteristically self-confident clout move, convincing somebody with the big money to back exactly that play. I won't say it is entirely unsuccessful.

In New York City, 1933, physician Burt Berendsen (Bale) and attorney Harold Woodman (John David Washington), partners in an undefined humanist business venture and advocates for veterans' benefits reform (having served together during the first world war), are approached by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) to perform a sub rosa autopsy on her father (Ed Begley, Jr.), the general who founded their regiment. As tension and violence mount, the tale of Burt and Harold's post-war Dutch sojourn spools out, complete with free-spirited-heiress-turned-nurse-turned-artist Valerie (Margot Robbie) with whom the latter falls in doomed love. We then learn of Burt's odious marriage to a Park Avenue blueblood, whose parents have all but nullified his medical license and social standing.

The whodunit expands, rather precipitously, into a tale of would-be global domination, complete with a brace of deliciously comic (perhaps unnecessary) international covert agents (Mike Myers and Michael Shannon) and a U.S. Marine Corps general who refuses to kneel to authoritarianism (Robert DeNiro).

In the parable quality of its true life, everything-old-is-new-again narrative and ensemble mystery, Amsterdam reminds of Steven Soderbergh's No Sudden Move (2021). But, and this may be solely a matter of taste, it seems altogether too fixated on its Message, on transcending genre and expounding on Russell's perspective, to be much fun. The cast is, of course, unbelievably luminous, capable and beyond committed, but some of them are more adept than others at rendering Russell's arcane, stagy dialogue as real speech, and others have precious little to do; stunt casting is more fun when it yields revelations, or at least surprises. And where Soderbergh's bristly little caper felt somehow timely, Russell's left me wondering what he intended to add to the conversation.

To its credit, Amsterdam is an artfully executed affair, with set design and costuming that effectively recreate a moment in time as real. Which is to say, lived-in, sometimes dingy, with a distinct and unbreachable gap between the haves and the have-nots. Its evocation of time and place is immersive, a complete vision and a true accomplishment. But what does it serve?

I continue to admire Russell's work; I even like that he tried to bring us a continental mystery with something to say. But that something feels, in situ, a little obvious, a foregone conclusion: The canary was dead before we got to the bottom. R. 134M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


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*Updated listings for Fortuna Theatre were not available at press time. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre (707) 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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