'Amsterdam' review: Star studded cast drown in obnoxious and overstuffed historical dramedy
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Despite his on and off-screen controversies, writer and director David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “American Hustle,” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) always seems to draw solid performers as evident by the unusually high caliber of talent in his “Amsterdam.” Though people outside of the Film Twitter world probably don’t know about the director’s troubled past, if they find themselves watching “Amsterdam,” they might be asking what movie they signed up for because it’s several different narratives squeezed into a monotonous and underwhelming historical dramady. Considering the talent assembled, everyone from Christian Bale, Mike Myers, Margot Robbie, Zoe Salanda to Taylor Swift and Chris Rock are here playing various bit roles and cameos, it’s a wonder how empty and near-sighted “Amsterdam” is. Maybe they read a different script than what eventually made it to the screen.
Equal parts a screwball farce, comedic thriller, and an earnest paradigm on the bondage of friendships with a stern antifascist history lesson, “Amsterdam,” which proudly opens with a “Most of this actually happened” title card, never finds its stride amid Russell’s constant tinkering. His movies are always messy and have an unfocused tinge, but the difference between “American Hustle” and “Amsterdam” is the scope of the story, and how it manages to weaponize its actors in a way that complements their strengths. There’s a reason so many A-listers want to sign up for his projects. Sadly, none of the cast salvages a disjointed screenplay that features a very pointed and overtly obvious cautionary tale about the way our country has always tried sticking our nose in other people’s affairs and the dangers white supremacy presents in a modern-day society.
What does work is the central relationships, but the framing device and structure in Russell’s screenplay prevents them from establishing themselves beyond broad caricatures. The main characters are introduced via flashback in New York 1933 before awkwardly shifting the timeline 15-years in the past. They are Burt Berendsen (Bale), a practicing doctor known (and disbarred) for his experimental treatments on wounded war veterans (he also lost his left eye on the battlefield); his chummy attorney and old army pal Harold Woodman (John David Washington) and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbit) a wealthy artist who helped patch up soldiers during World War I.
Though they met in France in 1918, their friendship was cemented in a breezy post-war spell in Amsterdam, where Valerie showed an entirely lavish and expensive new world to Burt and Harold. This extended flashback helps lay the groundwork for why audiences should invest in the characters, but it’s so devoid of any spark or luster, it creates a frustrating viewing experience as Russell quickly jettisons between Oscar winners, pop stars, and A-list comedians. (Shout-out Chris Rock for making a meal out of a thankless sidekick role who’s basically there to comment on how Black men are always accused of abusing white women).
Things don’t get any sturdier when the main plot kicks into gear, which involves Harold being hired to investigate the mysterious death of a senator (Ed Begley Jr) whose daughter (Taylor Swift) believes was premeditated and who eventually meets her own demise that’s all but guaranteed to light up the Twitter sphere once the clip is widely available (I, for one, can’t wait). Burt and Harold become prime suspects in both murders that naturally has greater political implications, all of which are tediously unspooled during the film’s snoozer of a finale.
It does put them on course to interact and encounter several strange and eccentric individuals: Micheal Shannon and Mike Myers are the best of the bunch playing two bird obsessed secret agents with an affection of glass creations (they provide Burt with new eye hardware); there’s Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy as a snobbish, elite upper class couple; Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola play two bumbling detectives; and finally Robert De Niro’s scene stealing General Gil Dillenbeck rounds out the ensemble and seems to be the only performer capable of making some tangible sense of this convoluted tale.
“Amsterdam” is a coagulation of a variety of ideas that never come to fruition: the mystery isn’t exactly compelling, the camaraderie among Bale, Robbie and Washington could’ve used more snappy dialogue and, well, it’s just boring to follow. At one point during the final ten minutes, Bale gives an internal monologue that essentially recaps everything we’ve just witnessed. It’s as though Russell isn’t confident audiences will be able to keep up with this constantly shifting story or if the studio mandated it after poor test screenings. Whatever the case, “Amsterdam” might be the biggest disappointment of 2022: a sprawling and dense tale made with ambition and features plenty of recognizable faces, but never makes a strong case for bringing them together.
AMSTERDAM opens in theaters Friday, October 7th.