Director David O. Russell returns with Amsterdam, seven years having passed since his last film, Joy. The film finds him working with some familiar cast members, namely Christian Bale, as well as in familiar territory. Akin to his earlier film American Hustle, Amsterdam finds inspiration in true events and then elaborates from there with fictional oddities abounding. Unfortunately, while American Hustle has its flaws, it is also a far more refined picture than Amsterdam. Russell’s twisting tale centered around the early 1930s conspiracy to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a dictator – likened to Germany or Italy’s facist governments – is a misfire. It has one of the largest ensemble casts of the year – not just Bale, but Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Zoe Saldaña, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Robert De Niro, and even Taylor Swift appear, among others – but even they are not enough to save this wayward film from devolving into a dull affair.
Amsterdam starts off with an interesting hook: there is a conspiracy that has seen at least two people killed. Dr. Burt Berendsen (Bale) and Harold Woodsman (Washington) are, unfortunately, in the middle. From there, the film backtracks to World War I, spends time watching that duo plus Valerie (Robbie) have fun in Amsterdam (a location the film mentions ad nauseam), jumps back to the present (1933), and then finally gets to the point of making sense of that conspiracy. It is a meandering, long-winded story that never quite feels like the point of Amsterdam. What that point would be, however, is anyone’s guess with much of the story, the characters, and the various events that occur feeling more like an elaborate magic trick designed to distract the audience. The more “stuff” the film tosses into this mixture, the more the audience forgets nothing is really happening, or so the film appears to hope.
From there, everything loses its luster, ultimately feeling like additional distractions. The deadpan comedy with a quirky irreverence is not only a bad Wes Anderson impression, lacking any spark or genuine wit, but the characters look as though they, too, are waiting for the joke. Every once in a while, Chris Rock appears and just does his standup routine transposed into the 1910s or 1930s. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers will pop up and wax romantically about bird watching. Burt, Harold, and Valerie will, once again, mention that they were “in Amsterdam”. Most of the jokes and oddity fall flat, largely due to flat and stilted dialogue. As the film reaches the finale, it finally gets to the point of the conspiracy with on-the-nose themes delivered through speeches. Nazism and greed are given passionate critique, but end up another distraction from the emptiness lurking within Amsterdam. Lurching from tone-to-tone, idea-to-idea, and story-to-story, the film ends up feeling like 10 films smashed into one with the narrative choppiness that implies. Without a sharper or more focused script, Amsterdam is a film in search of itself, trying on many hats with none quite fitting.
The cast is a mixed bag with Christian Bale and Margot Robbie standing out the most. Bale leans into the oddity of his glass-eyed character with a classic gumshoe persona mixed in with a benevolent mad scientist’s manic energy. Robbie brings a vitality and energy to the picture, ensuring both Burt and Harold even enjoy their time in the war while making those scenes “in Amsterdam” sunny and generally enjoyable. The rest of the cast has to endure their brief cameos or flat dialogue, struggling compared to Bale and Robbie. John David Washington is given the largest role of the remaining cast and, when sharing the screen with Bale and Robbie, is largely outclassed. He is fine and has good chemistry with them, especially with Robbie, but shows a limited emotional range that never brings the right off-beat energy to his otherwise zany situations. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers make for a fun oddball duo, even if their scenes are all-too-brief. Chris Rock and Robert De Niro are largely left to speechify, delivering them well, but short-changed by the script. Taylor Swift is given very little to do – and her ardent fans will not enjoy her character’s fate – but shows her general greenness with acting. Rami Malek has a few moments, but pours it on too thick, turning his character into a cartoonish figure. Like the story, the cast is vast with plenty of individual appeal, but when mashed together feel like an odd compilation of characters from different films with only a few really gelling together. Though, even those moments are short-lived.
Amsterdam finds consistent success in its technical qualities. The editing by Jay Cassidy has the impossible task of keeping its many parts cohesive and coherent, which it does from beginning to end. The film may be chaotic and narratively choppy, but that never feeds into the overall flow. DP Emmanuel Lubezki is fantastic as always with a gorgeous, washed out look to many of the scenes in the 1930s that captures the film’s old time setting. The cold, dark gray of war contrasted by the bright yellow look in Amsterdam is also notable with Lubezki’s flowing camera work proving a consistent eye-catching delight. The production and costume design both pick up from this with both possessing great attention-to-detail that brings its various settings to life, while also playing on the generally kooky mood with appropriately off-beat costumes for some characters (namely Burt and Valerie).
Despite those successes in editing, cinematography, and design, Amsterdam is a misfire. Christian Bale and Margot Robbie try their best, but even they cannot save this aimless mess. David O. Russell tosses in as many actors, ideas, plot threads, settings, and themes as he can, but it all feels like a bad magic trick. It may be chaotic and flashy, but it is all to distract from the reality that nothing is actually going on and the film is headed nowhere.