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Preaching to the Choir 

David O. Russell’s star-studded whirligig, “Amsterdam,” drives a restless plot nowhere; plus Claire Denis’ muddled political travelogue, “Stars at Noon."

click to enlarge Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in David O. Russell's wacky murder mystery/anti-fascism message movie, "Amsterdam."

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in David O. Russell's wacky murder mystery/anti-fascism message movie, "Amsterdam."

As is often the case with maligned movies which are eclipsed by the mob mentality itself, David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” is nowhere near as bad as rumored. Quite the contrary, in fact: For large passages, it’s an unusually funny and raw mainstream American movie with a real sense of adventure and swing, until it derails in the third act. Said third act, one of the worst examples of sanctimonious Hollywood preaching in recent memory, and there’s plenty of competition, is probably the main cause of those terrible reviews. Although modern critics like to be preached to, so who knows?

“Amsterdam” is obsessed with plot, which is probably part of the problem it’s having with audiences. A character can’t get from point A to point B; he or she must meet a handful of people with elaborate backstories, which involve other people with more backstories. I thought of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” These films have different milieus—“Amsterdam” is mostly set in 1930s-era New York City, with attending hustle and bustle, while “Inherent Vice” is set in ‘70s-era Los Angeles, with attending druggy ennui—but both are consumed with narrative detours, stopping in their tracks to make room for a hip guest star or bit of shtick or blast of exposition.

In both movies, the plot convolutions mirror the distractions of daily life, which keep people so preoccupied that conspiracies can bloom in plain sight, allowing governments to control and exploit us. “Amsterdam” is a glitzy, glossy bauble made by rich people about the corruption of the rich—a familiar hypocrisy that Russell interrogates until he doesn’t. The loose camerawork contrasts with precise editing. In the middle of a long and extraneous riff session between various actors, there may be a hard cut to, say, the damage wrought to human bodies by prolonged trench warfare in World War I. Then, we cut back to the attractive stars. The effect, also utilized in Russell’s “Three Kings,” is to foster an awareness of the damage that pays for social privilege, and to consider the damage that distractions allow most of us to ignore. It’s too easy to look beyond a veteran to savor something in the jewelry store window.

This notion of pain and carnage and wealth and evasiveness commingling is embodied by a poignant metaphor. Valerie (Margot Robbie), an American masquerading as a French nurse in WWI (I think) collects shrapnel from soldiers’ bodies and refashions it into art and even tea sets. Brutality and bougie amusement conjoined as a comment on the isolation from atrocity that many of us take for granted. It’s a shame that Russell doesn’t allow such metaphors to speak for themselves.

I suppose I’ve put off the plot long enough, though I only intend to offer a sketch, as we could be here all day. Burt (Christian Bale) and Harold (John David Washington) are WWI veterans who met Valerie in a hospital while serving, and together they spent a long idle in Amsterdam that stands for the fulfillment we seek amongst the demoralizing hurly-burly of life. In the early 1930s, the film’s primary timeline, the trio get involved in a quest to solve the murder of a beloved American general (Ed Begley Jr.), which connects them with spies, lonely hearts, henchman, and assorted Russell-style kooks. Attempting to solve the mystery, Harold, a Black attorney, and Burt, a half-Jewish doctor severely physically scarred by the war, collide with virtually every conceivable form of racism and classism in the U.S. leading up to World War II.

Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers looking to earn a citizenship medal, Russell’s progressivism is inconsistent. Points on racial inequality are scored bluntly and—in the scenes with Washington and Chris Rock set on the battlefields in flashback—effectively. But I’m not sure that a Black lawyer with a white girlfriend, wanted for murder no less, would navigate America’s social ladders in the 1930s as easily as Harold does here. This is not nitpicking, but a signifier of how Russell uses Harold sporadically to make easy social points without putting much effort into imagining him as a character. This is far too common of Black characters in modern Hollywood movies. Hollywood is desperate to assert its sensitivity, but characters of color are still often utilized as virtuous testaments to the filmmakers’ sense of their own empathy.

“Amsterdam” underscores Washington’s unfortunate habit of appearing as the lead in prestigious movies in which his costars endlessly steal scenes out from under him. Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” was, ironically, a white dude’s movie: Adam Driver’s to be precise. In Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” Washington looked great in designer suits but Robert Pattinson got to revel in what passed in that film for personality. And now there’s “Amsterdam,” which truly belongs to Bale and several of the supporting loons who pop up from time to time, particularly Mike Myers as a mysterious glass specialist who fashions Burt’s fake eye.

A veteran of the filmmaker’s “The Fighter” and “American Hustle,” Bale knows how to swim around in the whirligig atmospheres that Russell likes to conjure. As Burt, he’s wildly, pleasurably over the top. Hunched over, with prosthetics and make-up and wild hair and a vulnerable voice, Bale suggests something like a Universal movie monster as tax accountant. Bale gets away with his broadness, excels at it in fact, because he's unpredictable—he retreats when you don’t expect him to, honoring Burt’s vulnerability more than his own need to get attention. Bale is enabled by Russell, who clearly loves him, lingering over the actor’s ferociously animate face and, as screenwriter, feeding him the best lines. Bale is this wild movie’s compass.

Until the final half hour, where Russell has characters tell us what the film’s about (spoiler: it’s not in favor of fascism) the energy of the production transcends preachiness. I normally don’t enjoy the tonal discombobulation of Russell’s movies, but it moved me here. There’s an unforgettable scene, apropos of little, in which Burt’s estranged wife, Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), offers to look at his ravaged, corseted back, and tells him how awful he looks while she caresses his body. Beatrice is a hard woman, and because she’s rich Russell accords her no empathy, but we see the exorcism she’s providing Burt by telling him what he fears everyone sees when they see him.

A conventional director would’ve cut this scene to move the film along, thankfully Russell didn’t. And thank God he didn’t cut the scenes in which Alessandro Nivola bundles about as a detective, breaking objects comically within otherwise serious sequences. There are many such bits in this movie, as the randomness, the craziness, and the frequent leitmotifs of absurdity are not only the point, but the film’s driving engine. And as broad as the many guest stars are, they communicate a tension—a sense of juggling inward wants and outward pressures—that keeps “Amsterdam” from becoming a glib joke. Despite its myriad indulgences, Russell’s restlessness is the very reason to see “Amsterdam,” as most American movies are anemic by comparison.

click to enlarge Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley in Claire Denis' meandering political travelogue "Stars at Noon."
  • Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley in Claire Denis' meandering political travelogue "Stars at Noon."

On the other hand, Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” earns the derision it’s received. After the return to form of “Both Sides of the Blade,” Denis is back to the self-righteous metaphors of “White Material” and “High Life.” Adapting Denis Johnson’s novel, which is set in Nicaragua in the 1980s during Sandinista rule, Denis and co-screenwriter Andrew Litvack jettison most of the narrative’s context for a free-floating, timeless story of white people mucking about in a land they don’t understand. And that loss of context is a major problem, rendering the globalist allegory universal to the point of banality. Denis aims for ambiguity and lands at vagueness.

Trish (Margaret Qualley) is a young American reporter in Nicaragua looking to uncover America’s collaboration with its government to suppress rights, or something. Once again, Denis’ allergy to context is a mistake. My guess is that even art film audiences don’t have the relationship between America and Nicaragua during the Reagan years at the tip of their tongues, but since this film is set in some amalgam of the past and present this information barely matters anyway. If you are familiar with the possibility that America is capable of collaborating with fascist governments to serve its own ends, and that such transactions are laundered through convoluted business deals, you have what you need to understand Denis’ “Stars at Noon.” Denis makes her point early and often, until the film muddles itself into nonexistence.

But I digress—so does “Stars at Noon.” Trish wants to dig up something incriminating, though she’s hindered by her sullied reputation, which may be tied to her alcoholism and willingness to sell herself to men for anything ranging from a passport to tequila money. The early portions of this movie—when you think it’s going to follow Trish as she leads a debauched life in a dangerous land, perhaps living out her own version of “Under the Volcano”—are promising. Denis might not have much of a script this time, but her formal skills are very much still with her, and the first half of “Stars at Noon” is a symphony of sweating bodies, sweaty landscapes, and the sort of intensely corporeal, erotically destabilizing shots that often give Denis’ movies their juice.

Given the terror that most filmmakers have of portraying sex, Denis’ casualness with Trish’s body and anything-goes sensibility is refreshing. However, Qualley is vivid but unconvincing. One doesn’t look at Trish and see the baggage of a life lived in extremis—the sort of thing that Juliette Binoche can telegraph effortlessly.

As Daniel, the sexy British businessman in Nicaragua to do … something …Joe Alwyn is even less substantial. If Charlie Hunnam initially felt like a Brad Pitt that producers got at discount, then Alwyn is a bargain basement Hunnam.

Qualley and Alwyn feel like kids playing at global intrigue, which serves Denis’ point about white imperialism but brings the movie to a standstill. Filmmaker Benny Safdie eventually appears as an American doing … something … and walks away with the movie. Capable of communicating ulterior motives, Safdie invests this meandering political travelogue with proof of life.

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