Anya Taylor-Joy, left, Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro...

Anya Taylor-Joy, left, Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie star in "Amsterdam." Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace

PLOT In the 1930s, three friends are drawn into a strange conspiracy.

CAST Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington

RATED R (language, some violence)


WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE David O. Russell’s latest has charm and style but forgets to tell a satisfying story.

In 1933, a retired Marine Corps Major General named Smedley Butler claimed that a cabal of wealthy businessman and right-wing veterans were plotting a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The conspiracy became known as the "Business Plot” and met with widespread ridicule in the press, but Butler — a veteran of four wars and a two-time Medal of Honor recipient — was taken seriously enough to merit a Congressional investigation. The results: inconclusive.

That’s the inspiration behind “Amsterdam,” the latest star-studded project from writer-director David O. Russell. Another filmmaker — say, Oliver Stone — might have turned this odd blip of history into a prescient paranoid thriller, but Russell has fashioned it into a screwball comedy-mystery. The results: also inconclusive. “Amsterdam” is one odd duck of a movie, a whimsical lark riddled with earnest fears about the state of American democracy.

The action is set mainly in the early 1930s and focuses on Dr. Burt Berendsen (an excellent Christian Bale) and attorney Harold Woodman (John David Washington), veterans of the Great War who once spent a magical interlude in Amsterdam with a mercurial beauty named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The two men now work as low-level fixers in New York City, but their latest case, involving a mysterious death and a frightened young woman (Taylor Swift, brief but delightful), goes badly —they end up framed for murder. Luckily, the long-vanished Valerie reappears to assist them. Their convoluted plan is to convince General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro) to give a public speech that will lure the killers, and the conspiracists behind them, into the open.

The whole story seems a little ginned up and unconvincing, and there are times when “Amsterdam” feels mostly like an excuse for Russell to show off his creative casting. Andrea Riseborough shines as Berendsen’s heartless wife; Michael Shannon and Mike Myers, as intelligence operatives and birdwatchers, make for an enjoyably odd couple; Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy nearly steal the show as a high-society couple who politely loathe each other. On the other hand, Chris Rock as a feisty veteran and Zoe Saldaña as a nurse who catches Berendsen’s eye, are underutilized.

“Amsterdam” marks the first time Russell seems directly influenced by his peers, notably Wes Anderson. His characters have overly conspicuous quirks — Berendsen is forever hunting for his lost false eye, Valerie smokes a pipe — and they tend to speak in aphorisms (“The dream repeats itself because the dream forgets itself,” says Valerie). These stylish affectations sit weirdly, though, alongside Berendsen’s long speeches about war, peace, hate, love, freedom and fascism. It’s part “JFK,” part “The Big Lebowski,” and the mix doesn’t work.

That said, the movie has its moments. If you don’t mind watching its kooky characters scamper around in search of a story, “Amsterdam” can be a pleasant enough place to spend some time.

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