Margot Robbie, John David Washington, and Christian Bale in Amsterdam


It's been seven years since David O. Russell last made a movie – and because that movie was Joy, an unmemorable comedown from the trifecta high of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, the wait for a new one has felt even longer. (Apparently, 2015 also gave us Russell's Accidental Love, a rom-com with Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, and loads of other talents that I honestly hadn't heard of before doing a Wikipedia search just now.) But the writer/director is back with Amsterdam, a fitfully funny, sprawling period comedy that doesn't recall Russell's Oscar-approved titles so much as his adventurous slapstick mess I Heart Huckabees. It isn't a great film; during its protracted midsection, it's closer to a lousy one. Yet there's more going on here than there has been in about 95 percent of the year's other releases, and the contributions of its impressively overstuffed cast make Russell's latest worth a look. Maybe more than one if you take a nap in the middle.

An opening title card similar to one employed for American Hustle informs us that “a lot of this actually happened,” and that's true so long as you understand that the “lot of this” doesn't include Amsterdam's three fictitious protagonists. Those would be the surgeon Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), the nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), and the lawyer Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), who met in France during the final days of World War I. Valerie was responsible for removing the shrapnel imbedded in the men's bodies after they were wounded in battle – both soldiers were disfigured in the attack, with Burt also losing an eye – and the three quickly became inseparable friends (Valerie and Harold also became lovers), going on to share a loft and a happy bohemian existence in the movie's titular city.

Their 1918 idyll ended, however, after Burt and Harold set off for New York, where Burt had a wife waiting for him, and Valerie set off for places unknown. But a reunion is on the horizon as the film opens in 1933, and Burt and Harold are enlisted to uncover the mystery of their former commander's presumed murder. Before long, it's Burt and Harold themselves who are wrongly accused of murder, with the wildly complex plot also involving a sinister plan for world domination, a shadowy American-fascist regime, a forced-sterilization clinic, an unexpected fate for Taylor Swift, a hitman played by an unrecognizable Timothy Olyphant, and Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as professional spies who are also amateur ornithologists. So you know: The David O. Russell (of old) usual.

Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Margot Robbie in Amsterdam

Sadly, the least involving element in all of this is the eternal bond between Burt, Valerie, and Harold, considering that Bale, Robbie, and Washington don't appear to be acting in the same movie, let alone the same scenes. The trio's casual, breezy courtship in Amsterdam is rather endearing, especially when the pals spontaneously make up lyrics to a self-described “nonsense song.” But Bale is giving one of his intensely eccentric, heavily accented, broadly comedic performances (much like the one he gave in American Hustle), and Robbie is going for emotional directness, and Washington appears to have just wandered in from a heavy sleep, and none of their portrayals quite gel with the others. While the actors' affection seems legitimate, their conversational rhythms are strangely off. (I also couldn't help but be reminded that this is now the second movie in seven years, after The Big Short, in which Bale played a character with a glass eye. That's a really specific niche the guy is apparently working to master.)

Amsterdam's three stars are hardly alone in not proving Russell's movie with more coherence and consistency … not that the writer/director was necessarily aiming for those qualities. It's just that the all-over-the-map oddness, awkward performance chemistry, and occasional period inappropriateness are less detrimental – sometimes even beneficial – in limited doses. Though his screen time is minimal, Chris Rock, cast as one of Burt's and Howard's fellow soldiers, scores the most out-loud laughs simply by enacting a Chris Rock unhappily trapped in 1918 and 1933. Rami Malek, as Valerie's brother, is reliably bizarre, yet nicely matched by the icy imperiousness and unanticipated fangirl gushing of Anya Taylor-Joy as his wife. Shannon and Myers make for a loopy, low-key comedy team; ditto, to a lesser extent, Matthias Schoenarts and Alessandro Nivola in their roles as grouchy detectives. Portraying Burt's tightly wound spouse, Andrea Riseborough is a pert, distinctive hoot; the underused Zoe Saldaña, as the nurse whom Burt falls for, is refreshingly sane and controlled; Swift looks divine yet appears unsure of how much fatale needs to be peppered into her femme.

To quote The Dude, though, it's Robert De Niro who really ties the room together. After appearing in some early newsreel footage as a principled general who demands (and deserves) to be addressed as “General,” the actor shows up at the three-quarter mark of Russell's 134-minute film and promptly struts off with it, almost wholly redeeming the self-conscious tweeness, halfhearted attempts at '30s-screwball repartee, and relentless tedium of the any scenes – and halfway through, there are a bunch of them – meant to play as even borderline romantic. His expression may never seriously alter from the gruff, somewhat constipated scowl we generally associate with the man. But the majestic Russell-film veteran, here, is simultaneously more intimidating and more quick-witted than he's been in years. And when we started hearing echoes of the state of current events in he general's tirades against fascist atrocities of the past, it was De Niro's forcefulness that made my previously, annoyingly restless and chatty fellow patrons alert and attentive. (After one particular barn-burner of a speech, a couple of them even applauded.) Though I wish it was with an overall stronger entertainment, I'm delighted that David O. Russell is back, and was frequently delighted with Amsterdam itself. Here's hoping the auteur's next vehicle doesn't take another seven years to roll around – and that De Niro will again be along for the ride.

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile


When Javier Bardem portrayed Desi Arnaz in last year's Being the Ricardos, singing decently and shaking his hips commendably, I thought it was as close as we'd ever get to seeing this traditionally fierce dramatic actor in musical-comedy mode. Little did I know that Ricardos was just a warmup, because in the family comedy Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, Bardem's irrepressible showman Hector P. Valenti makes mamboing Arnaz look like a potted plant.

In directors Will Speck's and Josh Gordon's adaptation of Bernard Weber's beloved children's books, primarily The House on East 88th Street, Valenti is the hack entertainer who discovers, in Gremlins fashion, a crooning baby crocodile in a Manhattan pet shop. Valenti immediately whisks the critter back to his brownstone in the hopes of making little Lyle a massive stage star, a plan that's abandoned when the reptile (voiced by Shawn Mendes) proves to have a crippling case of stage fright. Most of the movie, unfortunately, finds Bardem literally out of the picture, with Valenti hitting the road in search of a new act and Lyle winning over the brownstone's incoming tenants: cookbook author Katie Primm (Constance Wu), her meek math-teacher husband Joseph (a miscast Scoot McNairy), and their anxious tween son Josh (Winslow Fegley). It's all generically pleasant in that familiar, hyper-caffeinated kiddie-slapstick-with-CGI manner, and handily improved by Wu's charm, Fegley's earnestness, and the unexpected subtlety of Brett Gelman, whose token meanie Mr. Grumps is more insidiously hateful, and funnier, than the actor's scumbag brother-in-law Martin on the BBC series Fleabag. It's Bardem, however, who really makes Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile worth watching. Is the Academy Award winner slumming in this visually bland, musically redundant outing? Absolutely. But Bardem slums exquisitely.

Javier Bardem in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile

Although Lyle is incapable of speech, the croc has no problem singing his heart out, and it should go without saying that Mendes is up to the task. Yet the original compositions he's been given, most of them by the Oscar- and Tony-winning team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, tend to all sound the same, the bouncy pop anthems and faux-emotional ballads too reminiscent of, and inferior to, similar tunes in La La Land, The Greatest Showman, and Dear Evan Hansen. Despite Mendes' vocal gifts and the songs' frequently manic corresponding activity, Lyle's production numbers are the dullest scenes in the film. Except, that is, when Valenti takes part in them, singing and dancing with so much exuberant gusto that the sweat pouring from Bardem's forehead seems completely self-manufactured. I was largely bored by the requisite family-strife sentiment, and bummed that the house fire in Weber's Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile book was, in screenwriter William Davies' rendition, replaced by an American Idol-style competition, and couldn't understand several of the narrative's basic tenets. (I get why Lyle is booed offstage when he's unable to sing in public – but isn't the crowd just a tiny bit wowed by the sight of a crocodile in a glittering suit jacket holding a microphone and standing on his hind legs?) Whenever Valenti is around, though, his tireless, hilarious, joyful mugging makes the whole thing worthwhile. Leave it to Javier Bardem to perform a rambunctiously choreographed bit opposite a dancing crocodile and the reptile is the second-most watchable thing onscreen.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher