Amsterdam (United States, 2022)October 07, 2022
With its whiplash-inducing tonal inconsistencies and
sloppily assembled narrative, Amsterdam often feels like a pastiche of (take
your pick) Monty Python, The Coen Brothers, or Wes Anderson grafted onto a
crime caper/espionage thriller with a strong allegorical message about fascism.
This is more the freewheeling David O. Russell from American Hustle,
which also spun its wheels early before settling down, than the disciplined filmmaker
who made Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter. It takes
well over an hour before Amsterdam decides what it wants to be and, by
that time, viewers may be exasperated by the film’s quirkiness and exhausted by
its meandering, unfocused storyline.
Considering that talent involved, anything less than a home
run would have to be considered a disappointment. One of the downsides of having
so many well-known actors vying for screen time is that none of them gets a
chance to shine (not unlike in 2021’s Don’t Look Up). From a narrative
perspective, the story (an opening caption informs us that “A lot of this really
happened”), which fictionalizes a Depression-era conspiracy to replace FDR with
a respected military man, is not uninteresting but it takes Russell too long to
wade through the preliminaries. The movie doesn’t start building momentum until
Robert De Niro shows up, and that’s more than an hour into the proceedings.
Russell’s attempts at screwball comedy are inexpert; he’s no
Preston Sturges. One of the problems is that the lead trio – physician Burt
Berendsen (Christian Bale), attorney Harold Woodman (John David Washington),
and shut-in Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) – are thinly drawn. They never become
real and the romantic attachment between Harold and Valerie is stronger in Russell’s
imagination than on the screen. By using a non-linear structure to establish
the characters and their circumstances, Russell is more apt to confuse viewers
than add multi-dimensionality to the characters. The first half is a muddle.
Chronologically, Amsterdam begins during the final
year of World War I. That’s where Burt, Harold, and Valerie meet: they’re
injured servicemen and she’s a nurse. After the war, the threesome travel to
Amsterdam, where they enjoy an idyllic break from reality before Valerie disappears
and Burt and Harold return to the U.S. – the former to become a physician
obsessed with repairing the disfigurements of war veterans and the latter to
study law. Fifteen years later, Burt and Harold remain friends but neither has
seen Valerie since Amsterdam. That’s about to change, however.
Burt and Harold are approached by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift),
the daughter of their former beloved commanding officer, General Bill Meekins
(Ed Begley Jr.), to investigate the circumstances surrounding her father’s passing.
Contrary to the official cause of death, Liz believes he was murdered. It doesn’t
take much to convince Burt and Harold that she may be right but a series of bad
breaks and coincidences have Burt and Harold on the run from the law trying to
clear their names. This once again brings them into contact with Valerie along
with her brother, Tom (Rami Malek), and Tom’s wife, Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). Tom
wants to help and has powerful connections but is unwilling to stick out his
neck…unless Burt and Harold can convince the revered General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert
De Niro) to speak out in their defense. Against Tom’s wishes, Valerie
accompanies the men when they leave.
Christian Bale’s performance is delightfully loopy. Burt,
with his glass eye and penchant for slapstick, is something out of a Mel Brooks
movie. Bale is matched beat-for-beat by Margot Robbie, whose bona fides for
farce go back to her eye-opening turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. That leaves John David Washington as the straight man, the Bud
Abbott to Bale’s Lou Costello – it’s a role that fits like a glove. The
supporting ensemble is crammed with recognizable names. In addition to Rami
Malek, Taylor Swift, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Robert De Niro, Russell (despite a checkered
reputation) was able to attract Andrea Riseborough (as Burt’s wife), Alessandro
Nivola and Matthias Schoenaets (as two detectives), Michael Shannon and Mike
Myers (as bird-watching secret agents), Zoe Saldana (as Burt’s love interest –
sparks fly during an autopsy), and Chris Rock. Of those, Saldana is underused
and there’s a little too much Myers.
Amsterdam’s politics are obvious to anyone who is
looking. Although events transpire primarily in the 1930s, there’s little doubt
that Russell is drawing parallels to today. This may be only one of many items
on the director’s crammed agenda for the film but it’s one that is the most
likely to draw fire in some quarters. While the parallels are imperfect, the
screenplay does its best to italicize them, equating the worldwide rise of fascism
and nationalism in the 1930s to similar political movements in recent years. At
times, the observations are on-point but they are also a distraction, intentionally
removing the viewer from the movie’s setting.
There’s no lack of ambition in what Russell attempts with Amsterdam but his goals outstrip his ability to achieve them. A lot of scenes and moments, taken in isolation, are effective, but the juxtaposition of so many conflicting elements creates an unwelcome tension between comedy, drama, and suspense that the filmmakers are unable to manage. The lack of chemistry among the leads doesn’t help the scattershot storytelling. In short, Amsterdam is a mix of good and bad – possibly the least imposing entry on Russell’s strong filmography but by no means unwatchable. It just requires some fortitude to wade through the first hour.
Amsterdam (United States, 2022)
Cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Alessandro Nivola, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro
Screenplay: David O. Russell
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Daniel Pemberton
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Studios