Amsterdam has a lot going for it… on paper. Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, and Robert De Niro headline a lineup so deep that even the 2015/2016 Golden State Warriors would be intimidated. Emmanuel Lubezki, often battling Roger Deakins for the status as the greatest living cinematographer, has returned from his five-year absence from the game. And let’s not forget editor Jay Cassidy and composer Daniel Pemberton providing support.
So why isn’t this one of the best movies of the year? It certainly should be once you consider the talent involved, both in front and behind the camera. Well, unlike the answers within the story of Amsterdam, this one comes quite easily: David O. Russell. As one of the most problematic figures in Hollywood, it seems excruciatingly odd and false for Russell to be positioning his newest film in seven years as a plea to “protect kindness.” And even with that misbegotten intention, Amsterdam is so chaotic and clunky that the message never comes to fruition.
Of course, Russell delivering a chaotic mess is as much a surprise as Wes Anderson making a symmetrically shot quaint dark comedy, or Zack Snyder delivering a half-baked, slow-motion infused action film. Russell lives to stir up chaos and make messy movies. But they’re often gloriously controlled chaos that allows his characters to come alive and deliver a top-rate slice of entertainment. The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle all proved to be hugely successful, so it’s no surprise every actor in Hollywood lined up to be in his new movie, even if they’re agreeing to partake in a production led by an egomaniacal asshole.
But what distances Amsterdam from his trio of Oscar successes is that it’s more fixated on plot than character, which is a surprise for Russell considering he’s been quoted as saying “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that's it." And boy, there is A LOT of plot to go through here.
The title card reads “A lot of this really happened” as our story begins in 1933 New York. WWI veteran/doctor Burt Berendsen (Bale, also serving as our narrator) answers a call for help from his army buddy Harold (Washington). A high-ranking general has been killed, and his daughter (Taylor Swift, who really needs to rethink her Oscar vehicles after this and Cats) believes foul play was involved. Her suspicion quickly gets confirmed once Bert and Harold are framed for another murder, leading them on a madcap journey to clear their names.
But before they can do that, we have to travel back to 1918 Amsterdam to learn how Bert, Harold, and the lovingly psychotic Valerie (Robbie) became the best of friends. Simply put, the city offered a new life for each of them. Bert got to take the monkey off his back that was his loveless wife, Harold didn’t have to constantly worry about being a black man in a white-dominated world, and Valerie got to live the exciting life she was never allowed to in high society. The good times don't last forever, however, and everyone goes their separate ways back to reality.
Snapping back to 1933, the trio is reunited to solve the case, which increasingly gets more intricate as more and more characters get involved. There’s Valerie’s brother and sister-in-law (Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy), a pair of bumbling spies (Michael Shannon and Mike Meyers), and another retired general (Robert De Niro) that is somehow connected to all of this.
It’s all rather tiring as Russell treats his 134-minute marathon as a sprint, dumping mountains of dialogue in one brief scene after another. It wouldn’t be that surprising if it is later revealed that the first cut of the film ran north of four hours, which still wouldn’t be enough time to satisfactorily sort out this mess. And it’s even more depressing that this was the film Lubezki returned to the fold for, because, apart from a few decent shots, there’s no illustration of his immense talent.
The actors do their best to be our guides through this maze, or, when that doesn’t work, act as our equally confused surrogates. Robbie provides most of the laughs with her Harley Quinn-inspired banter, and Meyers gets to reprise his Inglorious Basterds role. Bale extends his acting range with some impressive physical comedy chops, allowed by his character’s many physical deformities, such as a bad back and missing eyeball. Russell really has outdone himself by assembling this troupe of actors. It’s just a shame that he can’t serve them well.
For all its promise on the page, Amsterdam can’t pull it off on the screen. It’s American Hustle meets I Heart Huckabees, with too much Huckabees and not enough Hustle.