Review: Amsterdam

By Christian DiMartino

David O. Russell returns after a 7 year hiatus with his new movie Amsterdam. I have liked the bulk of his movies. The movie stars Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Andrea Riseborough, Robert De Niro, Timothy Olyphant, Anya Taylor Joy, Rami Malek, Zoe Saldana, Alessandro Nivola, Chris Rock, Taylor Swift, and Ed Begley Jr., at least. If I don’t love all of those people, I at least like them. And I didn’t really like Amsterdam at all.

Not dissimilar from Swift (getting quite the paycheck here), I knew it was trouble when I walked in, so shame on me. Or, maybe, on O. Russell, whose American Hustle was about a con, and who has ultimately pulled the con on us by casting everyone and their mother in this truly messy movie (also shame because I’ve heard he’s a nightmare to work with, and has been the subject of much controversy). I separate the art from the artist. O. Russell, as an artist, is typically in my wheelhouse, and I even had a soft spot for his last movie, the quite messy but enjoyable Joy. Gotta jump ship here though unfortunately.

I knew it was trouble because the movie’s release was moved up, because there were indeed a lot of people in it (which can be a great thing, but in this case isn’t), and because it skipped all of the fall festivals, despite being directed by a five time Oscar nominee who had three consecutive Best Picture and Director nominations with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and the aforementioned American Hustle. Let me just tell you, he will not be making the trip to the Oscars this year.

Amsterdam is… a confounding experience, truly. Everything looks right, and everything is in its right place, and yet little to arguably none of it works. Well, that’s the frustrating thing: O. Russell usually knows what he’s doing, and this appears to be made by a guy, with actors, who knew what they were doing. But I have no idea what anyone was doing here. Amsterdam is a comedic mystery noir, but the mystery is not only not very interesting, but it’s not very mysterious. This could be forgiven if the movie were funny… which it also ultimately isn’t. So what we’re left with is a slog, with a few merits, that ultimately just… exists. It’s there, have at it. There’s messiness in a good chunk of O. Russell’s movies, but Amsterdam is trying to be so many different things that it just never really gels.

As noted, the cast of this movie is pretty large, and great. None of them are given too much to really do, but in news that will surprise no one, I did like whatever Bale was up to here. Set in the 1920s New York (they’re in Amsterdam for about 10 minutes of the movie, FYI), the title card reads: “Some of this Really Happened.” By the last 20 minutes, you’ll realize that might be true, but really just jumped out at me because not only as O. Russell done this already, but so has Adam McKay, so the joke needs to be put to rest for a while. Anyways, Bale is playing a work of pure fiction, and he plays Burt, who has a fake eye, scars on his face, and Lyle Lovett’s hairdo (and an accent, whatever it was, I enjoyed it). He also has scars all over his back, which came from the war, where he met his best friend and business partner Harold (Washington). The two help other veterans who are dealing with their own disabilities and disfigurements.

The two are enveloped in a plot whenever the daughter (Swift) of their former war General (Begley Jr.) comes to them asking to perform an autopsy on her father, who has unexpectedly died. Foul play is suspected. Shortly after, another murder is committed, and blood is on their hands. Bale serves as the narrator… uh, sometimes (part of the messiness), and he informs us of how him and Harold met in the war, and how they became friends with Valerie (Robbie), who nursed them back to health but also made art out of the shrapnel she scraped from their bodies… um, okay.

So before I go any further, I’d like to point out that the first 30 minutes or so is fairly interesting, but all of it feels a bit off. Like you’re listening to a CD with scratches. I don’t really know how else to describe it, but the whole movie ultimately feels like that, with the first 30 minutes being quasi-salvageable. But like the Robbie detail, or, say, Riseborough as Bale’s wife who is turned on by his scars, you sense that this was supposed to be quirky, but it’s… peculiar. Anyways, the three became good friends, Harold and Valerie lovers, they moved to Amsterdam, and then they went their separate ways. The three are brought back together when they attempt to uncover the plot. Myers and Shannon play spies who love birds; De Niro plays a war veteran and influencer; Saldana plays Burt’s co-worker and love interest; Malek is Valerie’s brother and Joy his wife; Rock is Bale’s business partner; Nivola is a detective; Olyphant an assassin, and I have no real clue why any of them agreed to be in this.

I often say this, but maybe this sounded better on paper. Well, I don’t know. Bale and O. Russell have worked wonders together prior, as have O. Russell and De Niro. Them I understand… the rest, not so much. Because as mentioned, nobody is given like a juicy role to play or anything. Bale is the only one who gets to have a good time. Everyone else just feels like they’re in service of the plot. Which… is also a major issue, because at about the 45 minute mark, the movie abandons what little humor it has and becomes more plot-centric. It was around this time that an unfortunate feeling crept over me. That feeling was… a disinterest. This is clearly O. Russell’s stab at like an Inherent Vice kind of deal, where the movie is over-plotted and such. Inherent Vice has never been a movie I’ve loved, but I like it, because even though I don’t really know what it’s about, it’s a wacky odyssey that at least holds your interest because it remains weird and funny. The trouble with Amsterdam is that it is convoluted… and I was still able to mostly follow it, so, why did it need to be this convoluted? And if it had been funny, I could’ve looked past the contrivances… but it isn’t.

By convoluting his storyline, he’s pretty much left his cast in limbo. Throughout this experience, I kept wondering if the cast was actually invested in this material, or if they knew they had made an error. I truly don’t know, because everyone seems fairly involved. The trouble is, we’re not. The pity of Amsterdam is that O. Russell has given us a cast of characters that feel like pure O. Russell creations, but he never gives them the room to breathe because he’s too busy telling a story that doesn’t matter. The public seems to have turned on American Hustle in the 9 years since its release. I still love it, but at the core of it is a story that isn’t as interesting as the characters that he used to tell it, and those characters, that writing, and those performances elevated it. It was a funny movie. Amsterdam gives off the vibe that it’s going for the same thing, and if it had achieved those things, it would have my approval. It doesn’t. I’m not even sure why the movie needed to be called Amsterdam, other than, well, what would you call this movie? It’s such a mess that I really pity the marketing team. They had a hard job to do.

I have no idea how this is going to do financially. Maybe had they gone the Don’t Worry Darling route, and drudged up some controversy and hooplah, it might’ve gained some attention. I found that to be a great looking, star-studded and entertaining movie that didn’t work. It’s not good, but it held my interest. Amsterdam is a slog, and maybe it’s trying to be sincere, but I didn’t care. It is not a failure, if maybe because he got this many talented people in a movie, and none of them are bad. Underserved, sure, but not bad. I also think this movie looks exquisite. The production and costume design are a marvel, as is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the three time Oscar winner of Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. All of the components are there, but they’re in service of an unfortunate dullard that couldn’t have ended sooner. It’s a true, blue, misfire, starring people that I love and directed by someone who I typically love. Amsterdammit.


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