The movie starts with the line “a lot of this actually happened” but the more I watch of this part murder mystery, party comedy, part political drama the more I think that this scene….and this scene…and especially this scene…. DIDN’T actually happen.
It starts in 1933 Harlem with Burt Berndsen (Christian Bale) – a doctor who lost an eye and has problems with his back from the war – and Harold Woodman (John David Washington) – a lawyer that works with Burt and also has injuries from the war – are hired to do an autopsy on General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr) – the man who originally brought the two men together. The general’s daughter Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) thinks he may have been murdered. The two men bring in Milton King (Chris Rock) – another member of their regiment during the war – who helps them bring the body to medical examiner Irma St Clair (Zoe Saldana) to do the autopsy. Burt and Irma conclude that Meekins was murdered. Burt and Harold end up witnessing another murder that happens right in front of them and the killer (Timothy Olyphant) quickly jumps into the crowd and screams that Burt and Harold are the murders. So, in the first 10 minutes there’s already a series of questions. Why did Liz Meekins hire these two men? Who killed Bill Meekins? Why was the other person killed?
Instead of continuing the murder mystery, the movie decides to jump around in time to introduce several other characters. First, the movie flashes back to before the war to introduce Bert’s rich wife and in-laws Beatrice, Augustus, and Alvelia Vandenheuvel (Andrea Riseborough, Casey Biggs, and Dey Young) who talk Burt into enlisting in the army, then to the war when General Bill Meekins appoints Burt to take charge of the all-Black regiment fighting in France that includes Harold and Milton. Somewhat quickly (and inexplicably) Burt and Harold make a pact that they’ll watch each other’s back. Another flash forward to a military hospital in France where the two men meet a nurse named Valerie (Margot Robbie) – just her first name for now – who tends to their wounds as much as she can. Again, somewhat quickly (and inexplicably) Valerie becomes a third member of the pact. Once the two men are somewhat healed the trio flee to Amsterdam. A world where their problems seem far away. They dance, and sing, and party. Harold and Valerie fall in love. They also meet Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) and Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) who – the movie says – works for the British (Paul) and American (Henry) governments.
Finally, the movie returns to 1933. Trying to stay one step ahead of the police detectives (Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts) that want to arrest them for murder, Bert and Harold’s investigation into the real killers leads them to the rich Libby Voze (Anya Taylor Joy), her husband Tom Voze (Rami Malek), and his sister Valerie Voze – the Valerie they knew in Amsterdam. A trio once again, they continue to investigate the murders which eventually brings them to a meeting with General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro) who knows more about what happened to his friend Bill Meekins.
Written and directed by David O Russell (“The Fighter”, “American Hustle”) the movie starts off as a murder mystery, changes into a comedy, adds little political drama, and then continues to switch back and forth between the three as the movie progresses. Even the cinematography (done by 3-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki) seems to change as the tone changes in the movie. Sometimes the color and light change in the middle of a scene.
The script seems to be trying to keep you distracted by adding a bunch of characters involved in a bunch of digressions. I mentioned 17 people and there’s more that I didn’t mention. Christian Bale who is the lead character and narrator for most of the movie does a good job (as he usually does). He’s very funny in some scenes, especially when he’s fixing his eye which often falls out or doesn’t match his other eye. It looks like his character is made up to look like John Turturro in “Barton Fink” – even the hairstyle looks the same – but he and John David Washington act more like characters in a different Coen brothers movie – “O Brother Where Art Thou?”. John David Washington is mostly subdued as he lets Christian Bale or Margot Robbie take the lead in many scenes. Margot Robbie is artistic – making artwork from the shrapnel she removes from bodies – and somewhat mysterious – not even revealing her last name – in France and Amsterdam but when they reunite with her back in America, she changes into the sister they keep hidden because she’s “not well” (mentally and/or physically – depending on the scene). Robert De Niro – who may be one of the only characters based on a real person – takes his role very seriously, ignoring some of the jokes other people tell him. The rest of the characters are adequate with a couple exceptions. Taylor Swift seems out of place (especially next to Christian Bale) and Michael Shannon, who is usually good, doesn’t hold up well when paired with the always funny Mike Myers. They should have asked Mike Myers or Chris Rock if there was another comedian they could recommend to be Mike Myers counterpart.
As for the “some of this really happened”. The movie has a few parts – a VERY FEW parts from what I’ve read – that are based on a real incident called “Wall Street Putsch” or “Business Plot”. I recommend you look up what really happened AFTER seeing the movie. You’ll find out that scene….and that scene….and especially that scene…. DIDN’T really happen.
I give it 4 out of 10 stars.