Amsterdam review – turn of the screwball in David O Russell’s starry muddle

There’s usually a no more heart-sinking way of starting a movie than with the larky, slippery announcement: “Based on a true story – mostly!” or “What follows is all accurate – kinda!” It usually means the film will fall between the two stools marked “creatively interesting” and “factually informative”. However, David O Russell begins his elaborate screwball mystery Amsterdam by declaring: “A lot of this actually happened.” He means the film is a wacky riff on the little-known 1933 “White House putsch” in which a cabal of wealthy American businessmen conspired to overthrow President Franklin D Roosevelt, hoping to dupe a retired major general called Smedley Butler into leading their fascist veterans’ organisation. (Maybe the nearest British equivalent was Lord Mountbatten being approached in 1968 by a group of establishment grandees to unseat Labour prime minister Harold Wilson.)

Amsterdam imagines three innocent veterans being drawn into these creepy shenanigans. Christian Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a disabled ex-soldier who lost an eye in the first world war; after The Big Short, this is Bale’s second “glass eye” role. Burt is a doctor in New York, supplying pain medication and prosthetic limbs to fellow veterans on a pro bono basis. Burt’s army pal Harold Woodman (John David Washington) is now a qualified lawyer, and helping him to run a morale-boosting ex-servicemen’s gala dinner. And the two men’s soulmate is the mercurial and brilliant Valerie Voze, played by Margot Robbie, who in the first world war was a volunteer nurse and dadaist artist who saved all the shrapnel she dug out of soldiers’ shattered bodies to create bizarre objet trouvé artworks.

Valerie took Burt and Harold for a glorious bohemian retreat in Amsterdam where they did nothing but carouse, but then she mysteriously vanished. And now back in New York in 1933, Burt and Harold witness the bizarre death of a prominent US general’s daughter, and find themselves in the frame for murder; they need the help of another top soldier, General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), and Valerie dramatically reappears.

There are some great supporting turns here, which periodically break the surface of this film’s soupy strangeness. Rami Malek is very funny as Valerie’s wealthy, silken-voiced brother Tom, always charming and insinuating. Mike Myers is amusing as MI6 operative Paul Canterbury, who for no good reason in one scene does Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s “sand dance”, surely the first time this has been seen in the cinema since the opening scene to Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners. Andrea Riseborough is elegant and stylish as Burt’s snobbish wife Beatrice, and Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola get laughs as two lumpen cops.

As for the leads, the best is John David Washington, who pursues a policy alien to his costars: less is more. His performance is cool, unruffled and his address to the camera is very seductively underplayed. Bale and Robbie are doing bigger and broader comedy, and often there isn’t quite the material in the script to back it up – although Bale has a good bit when Burt takes a new, state-of-the-art morphine painkiller via eyedrops, starts talking about how unreliable these things are and then suddenly interrupts himself: “Oh that’s fast!”

But there is something weirdly heavy and foggy in Amsterdam that feels like it’s working against the lightness and nimbleness needed for a caper. It’s the reality of the history, which the movie makes explicit in the closing credits: the grim fact of the US’s proto-fascism understandably means that the comedy isn’t going to be too lighthearted, although the obscurity of this story means that isn’t immediately clear. Well, there are some very good performances, and Washington has taken another step towards A-lister greatness.

• Amsterdam is released on 7 October in the US and UK.