“A lot of this actually happened” is the opening epigram of “Amsterdam,” David O. Russell’s kaleidoscopic riff on the curious case of Gen. Smedley Butler, who in 1933 became involved in what would be known as the Business Plot, wherein he was allegedly approached by a cabal of wealthy business executives to be the figurehead for an attempted coup in which they were planning to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Russell’s fantastical take on the episode, in which he mixes fact and fiction with extravagant abandon, can’t be called a success. It’s too scattershot, too much in its own manic, mannered head to qualify as a coherent, much less compelling narrative. But in its own bless-this-mess way, “Amsterdam” pays appropriate homage to the eras it invokes, both past and present. It’s so wild, so dreamlike, so utterly preposterous that it could only be a little bit true.
Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a physician in 1933 New York, where his practice is dedicated to easing the suffering of World War I veterans like himself. When his war buddy and best friend Harold (John David Washington) approaches him to perform a mysterious medical procedure on one of their military leaders, the two are plunged into a bizarre and increasingly convoluted scheme, one that will introduce them to a couple of enigmatic birdwatchers (Mike Myers and Michael Shannon), an eccentric millionaire and his saucer-eyed wife (Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy), and Gen. Gil Dillenbeck, a Butler analog played by Robert De Niro with a convincing combination of gravitas and bewilderment.
The shaggy-dog tale Burt and Harold find themselves in will also plunge them back to the Great War, when they met a captivating nurse named Valerie (Margot Robbie) while recuperating in a Belgian hospital. “Amsterdam” takes its title not from the New York of old, but from the European city where Burt, Harold and Valerie found personal liberation in the postwar era of exploration and artistic ferment.
Russell and his crack design team (the production design is by Judy Becker; J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky designed the costumes) bring impressive energy and detail to building a world immersed in surrealism — the only conceivable aesthetic response to the irrationality and suffering that was supposed to have ceased with the war to end all wars. There are moments, as “Amsterdam” toggles between 1918 and 1933, when it resembles “Ragtime” on psilocybin. Russell, who wrote the script, engages similar issues of race, class, social mobility and power, albeit in an imaginative space where dream logic is at constant odds with the story at hand. Characters appear without explanation; lines of dialogue are repeated for no reason; flights of fancy bump up against moments of graphic gore; coincidences, red herrings, tics and dog legs pile up with promiscuous abandon. “The dream repeats itself before it forgets itself,” one character says, before concluding: “This is the good part.”
There are some good parts in “Amsterdam,” which Russell has populated with some of the screen’s greatest faces — especially the women. In addition to Robbie and Taylor-Joy, he has enlisted Zoe Saldana to play a pathologist who serenely flirts with Burt over an open chest cavity; Andrea Riseborough plays Burt’s wife, Beatrice, a ruthless social climber with the claws to prove it.
It’s all diverting, if not ultimately sustained. Although the cast is thoroughly committed, as “Amsterdam” wends its way to its hysterically pitched climax, it sometimes feels like it’s two very different movies. Bale’s performance is particularly hard to parse: It’s no surprise that he can so completely submerge his British accent to play a streetwise naif, but the accent and characterization become distractions. Is he channeling Peter Falk? Al Pacino? John Turturro? Willem Dafoe?
Such are the distractions of “Amsterdam,” whose curlicues and circumlocutions are genuinely interesting but grow more self-conscious and indulgent with time. The movie’s saving grace is its contagious passion, and Russell’s unavoidably true thesis is that, as historical loops go, the one we’re in right now a doozy. The demagogues are on the rise again, and it’s hard to know who can fight them off when we’re all the walking wounded.
Two stars. Rated R. At theaters. Contains brief violence and bloody images. 127 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.