How can a film written and directed by David O. Russell and starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, Robert De Niro and a boatload of other worthy actors fail so miserably?
Well, in Hollywood it happens all the time. High concept films hit and miss, sometimes rising from the dead on video or streaming. It could happen here because audiences seemed more impressed with it than critics (Rottentomatoes.com).
The film, based on a real event, feels like a Coen Brothers period film that straddles thriller and weird comedy. Russell’s script has been excoriated by critics as ponderous, self-indulgent and wasteful of the star talent. It is a murder-mystery, but it struggles to be much more and trips over itself.
Based on the Business Plot, an alleged political conspiracy in 1933, was to overthrow the government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by wealthy businessmen, and install a quasi dictator, loyal to the business interests. Never heard of this event? Don’t feel bad, I had not either. Strangely, although there were congressional hearings, no one went to jail. Was it a real plot or just a theory? The film depicts the plot as being foiled by the character based on Butler, Gilbert Dillenbeck, played by De Niro.
The story is set in motion by the suspected murder of the former commander of a World War I regiment of African-American soldiers that included the main characters. His daughter asks the Bale character, now a doctor, and his ear Buddy, who is now an attorney, to investigate her father’s death, but who is also murdered. Sinister forces are at work.
I won’t reveal much of the plot as this is a murder-mystery and I don’t trade in spoilers. I’m going to focus on the film’s strengths and weaknesses and leave it up to you to see the film or avoid it.
The characters have a quirkiness like the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? but try to be both serious and very offbeat, a sign that Russell’s screenplay tries to be much more than it can deliver. It’s a comedy-thriller that is akin to the story of A Bridge Too Far, meaning the story falters under its own ambition. Bizarre things happen out of nowhere, usually not explained, and somewhat unnecessary. More quirkiness.
Christian Bale is terrific in the lead role of a physically and emotionally scarred war veteran, a doctor who uses questionable science to help other wounded vets. I immediately thought of Peter Falk when Bale’s character came on the screen, and it wasn’t the prosthetic eye, rather the voice and mannerisms, and approach to solving the crimes.
Margot Robbie, John David Washington and Chris Rock are good in their roles too, embracing the weirdness and sideways plot departures. De Niro is reliable, he spits out his lines like a tired Joe Friday. All together, the cast did a yeoman’s job navigating such a convoluted story. Zoe Saldaña, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Rami Malek and Alessandro Nivola are among the others in the large cast that fill jigsaw pieces in the story.
I will give Russell and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki credit for the composition of the frame and use of color and muting to get an antique look with occasional fanciful bright colors. The film looks expensive, even though it was produced for less than it would have if Bale and others had not taken discounts upfront. No amount of throwing vast marketing dollars could save the film at the box office.
Ordinarily, I root for quirky, oddball films like this to breakthrough and find audiences because I get tired of comic book and animated films. Maybe I we’ll see this film again and hope for a joyful reunion.