'Amsterdam': Christian Bale Leads a Surprisingly Confused Murder Mystery (Review)

Seven years ago, David O. Russell ended a desperate and ill-fated attempt to win an Oscar, releasing four films released in a span of five years that were only made to win trophies. The controversial director, whose misbehavior and abuse allegations are well-documented, is now back in theaters with Amsterdam, a murder mystery that serves as a successor to American Hustle but on a less frantic scale. Amsterdam, led by a trio of good performances from Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, is a well-meaning, but confused murder mystery.

The script is loosely inspired by the "Business Plot," a 1933 political conspiracy in which a retired Marine Corps general claimed wealthy businessmen were trying to install him as a fascist leader to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Russell takes this real-life plot and throws a murder mystery into it. When U.S. Senator Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) is murdered because he knows how evil the fascist dictators of Europe are, his daughter Elizabeth (Taylor Swift) asks lawyer Harold Woodsman (Washington) and Dr. Burt Berendsen (Bale) to investigate. When Elizabeth is killed, the crime is pinned on Harold and Burt, who take it upon themselves to keep digging into the mystery. Eventually, they reunite with Valerie Vose (Robbie), whom they met during World War I and lived in an idyllic paradise in Amsterdam, only to learn she has a connection to the conspiracy too.

Amsterdam has way too many things going on in its 134-minute runtime. Russell works overtime to make statements on just about everything wrong with the U.S. in the early 1930s, from racial discrimination to income inequality. He's also shooting for more philosophical statements, with repeated phrases about love and understanding. And the director also wants us to make sure we really, really know fascism is bad. It's as if Hollywood made noir message movies.

The stuff he gets right is the absurd humor and characters, one of the few traits carried over from his awards-hungry run. Bale's performance as Burt leans heavily into the whimsy and is easily the heart of the film. It's unfortunate that Russell didn't stick with Burt as the sole narrator because even though it starts out that way, we eventually get comments from Harold and Valerie. The messaging gets in the way sometimes of showing off the fun chemistry between the three lead stars. 

Russell peppers the film with A-list actors in small character roles, some more effective than others. Chris Rock steals a few scenes as Milton King, who served in France with Harold and Burt, although his other purpose is to deliver heavy-handed speeches on race. Anya-Taylor Joy is simply delightful in her small part as Valerie's sister-in-law. Rami Malek does what Rami Malek does best as Valerie's mysterious and wealthy brother. Alessandro Nivola also has a funny and too-small part as one-half of the bumbling police detective team follows Harold and Burt around. One disappointing performance comes from Robert De Niro, who has a small part as the fictional version of the general at the center of the Business Plot. He looks bored in the part, especially compared to how energetic Washington, Bale, and Robbie are in their scenes together.

Although Amsterdam packs in way too many themes and messages for one movie, Russell's script does keep the murder itself easy to follow. Some clues that might appear to be red herrings turn out to be helpful in the end. There's a feeling that this wasn't made just for awards like Russell's films from the early 2010s did. It's not fair to dismiss some movies as awards bait, but it's hard to see what other purpose some of those carefully engineered and polished movies may have had. With Amsterdam, Russell clearly has something (well, too many somethings) to say and a cast willing to have fun while delivering it.