A tiresomely absurd parody of a fascist plot in 1930s New York is made fun of by Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington.

The larky, slick opening line, “Based on a true story – mostly,” is often the most heartbreaking way to begin a movie. or “What follows is accurate in every way, sort of!” It often indicates that the movie will sit somewhere between the “creatively interesting” and “factually informative” stools. However, David O Russell states at the start of Amsterdam, a complex screwball mystery, that “A lot of this actually happened.” He is referring to the bizarre parody of the little-known 1933 “White House putsch,” in which a group of powerful American businesspeople plotted to topple President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to get a retired major general named Smedley Butler to command their fascist veterans’ organization. (Perhaps Lord Mountbatten being contacted by a group of establishment grandees in 1968 to remove Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the closest British parallel.)

Amsterdam envisions three unwitting veterans getting sucked by these spooky antics. After The Big Short, Christian Bale portrays Burt Berendsen, a crippled former soldier who lost an eye in World War I; this is Bale’s second “glass eye” portrayal. Burt is a physician in New York who provides prosthetic limbs and pain meds free of charge to other veterans. Burt’s former army buddy Harold Woodman (John David Washington) is now a licensed attorney and working with him to organize an ex-gala servicemen’s banquet to promote morale. The erratic and brilliant Valerie Voze, portrayed by Margot Robbie, is the soulmate of the two men. Valerie Voze was a dadaist artist and volunteer nurse in the First World War who kept all the shrapnel she scooped out of the broken corpses of soldiers to make weird objet trouv√© artworks.

Burt and Harold were taken to a lavish bohemian retreat by Valerie in Amsterdam where they did nothing but carouse until she abruptly disappeared. Back in New York in 1933, Burt and Harold witness the strange death of a high-ranking US general’s daughter and are accused of her murder. They seek the assistance of General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), another distinguished soldier, and Valerie makes a startling comeback.

This film sometimes breaks the surface of its soupy weirdness with some excellent supporting roles. As Valerie’s affluent, silken-voiced brother Tom, who is always charming and insinuating, Rami Malek is hilarious. Mike Myers is entertaining as MI6 agent Paul Canterbury, who does the “sand dance” with Wilson, Keppel, and Betty in one moment for no apparent reason. This is unquestionably the first time this has been seen in a movie since Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners’ opening sequence. As Burt’s snooty wife Beatrice, Andrea Riseborough is classy and sophisticated, while Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola make for amusing two lumpen police officers.

As for the leads, John David Washington excels because he follows a different philosophy than his co-stars: less is more. His portrayal is calm and unflappable, and he makes a very understated, enticing appeal to the camera. 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!” Bale and Robbie are doing bigger and broader comedy, and sometimes there isn’t quite the material in the script to back it up.

However, there is something very oppressive and gloomy about Amsterdam that seems to be working against the levity and dexterity required for a caper. It’s the historical truth, which the film makes apparent in the end credits: the humor isn’t going to be too lighter, which makes sense given the terrible reality of the US’s proto-fascism, even if it isn’t immediately obvious given the story’s obscurity. Well, there are some excellent performances, and Washington has advanced to greatness among A-listers.

On October 7, Amsterdam will be available in the US and the UK.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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