By Scott Cole
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek
Amsterdam is a frenzied and manic movie. It feels like watching a filmmaker have a panic attack in real-time. As the story staggers along like an inebriated man attempting to walk, writer/director David O. Russell thinks throwing famous actor after actress at the problem might fix it. If you like seeing films where you can exclaim, “Oh, it’s that guy!” over and over, this might be the film for you. Unfortunately, I don’t honestly think Amsterdam is for anybody. Its biggest sin, despite all the crazed energy and movie stars, is that it’s crushingly boring. Its 134 minutes feel eternal and made me realize how I’ve been too hard on films in the past that accomplished the bare essential tasks of providing characters who are interesting to watch and plots I cared about enough to follow through to their conclusion.
The fact that this film was written and directed by the same man who wrote and directed one of my favorite comedies of all time, Flirting with Disaster (1996), is unfathomable. O. Russell’s characters used to have whip-smart, acerbically funny dialogue that somehow sounded realistic even in the most heightened circumstances. Now, he is clearly reaching uncomfortably for quirky, and it’s often painful. Even the direction is off; many times here, the actors are awkwardly delivering impossible dialogue in the direction of the camera, and it has a skin-crawling effect. Some of the actors definitely acclimate to the oddball O. Russell style better than others, but in truth, they’re all at sea here.
I’ll take a crack at explaining the plot, which honestly feels like a homework assignment to try and follow. Here are the broad strokes. In 1933 New York City, doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and his lawyer friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) find themselves on the run for murder after a series of complications. Burt and Harold were both severely wounded in World War I (Burt even has a glass eye which becomes the butt of many jokes), and through flashbacks, we see their initial meeting and friendship with nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie), who treated their war injuries. Soon after, they all find themselves in Amsterdam, living as the best of friends – with Harold and Valerie starting to fall for each other. The three friends make a pact to always protect each other, and then harsh reality bursts their bubble when they have to leave their self-created Amsterdam paradise. They will not meet again until years later (in 1933) when Valerie joins Burt and Harold’s crusade to try and clear their names.
I will give the movie credit on some points. It starts fast and moves swiftly in its early scenes, managing to keep our attention as it begins to collect characters and interweave plot elements. This very aspect will eventually become the tiresome downfall of the movie, but in the early stages we are still somewhat on board. O. Russell’s screenplay throws in a lot of attempted humor, most of which falls flat and lands with a thud, but there are a few scattered moments that are amusing. I found a later moment in the film with character actress legend Beth Grant to provide the biggest moments of comedic relief. None of the scenes featuring comedians Chris Rock or Mike Myers work or are funny at all. That is not really their fault; they just have nothing funny or interesting to say. It’s the screenplay that fails them.
The performances feel like they always must take a backseat due to the serpentine plot constantly taking center stage. Bale, no stranger to collaborating with O. Russell, gives a somewhat bland performance that feels derivative of his accent and speech patterns from O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013). Washington, an actor who I have often found somewhat lacking in charisma, struggles with the O. Russell rhythm, I’m afraid, and he often fits in poorly with the rest of this period film. Hands down, his best scenes are with Robbie, who does the best, I think of the three leads at selling her character and motivations while still juggling the light farcical quality of the material. The supporting cast is vast and nearly impossible to talk about in-depth, but I liked the energy that Rami Malek brought to his bizarre character. Zoe Saldana provides a believable, calming presence in the film that we desperately cling to as a refuge from all the zaniness. I also have to say that in a very small but pivotal role, Taylor Swift’s presence was better and more natural than I anticipated.
In my plot description, I really only scratched the basic surface of the story. While there are surprising plot elements that it would be wrong of me to spoil, that is not the reason I did not delve into more plot details. The real reason is that I only have so much space to write, and I need to finish the rest of my day at some point. It is a fool’s errand to elaborate on this story; as it grows more and more complex, the viewer’s attention wanes. At the conclusion of Amsterdam, everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown at you, but you walk away with empty hands. As Macbeth would put it, “It is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
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