Amsterdam is a new period comedy thriller written, directed, and produced by David O. Russell. Released through 20th Century Studios.
At their best, David O. Russell’s movies will revel in their mayhem. They’re infused with the tenaciousness and/or thunderousness of their unsettled characters, and the director’s spirited filmmaking often complements their rambunctious energy. Certainly, Three Kings effectively captures the mania and the macho hysterics of an ever-senseless war, while The Fighter demonstrates the bullish bravado that allows us to champion Micky Ward’s hard-fought fight, both inside and outside of the ring.
But it was Silver Linings Playbook that most effectively accelerated Russell’s punchy and poignant style. Infusing a romantic dramedy with the heavyweight talent, personal sentiment, and funny ferocity that made it an immensely endearing and warmly entertaining two-hander. The notoriously nasty director finally found harmony amid all the zippy and zany cinematic chaos of his own creation. And it’s a high that he hasn’t matched since. American Hustle wasn’t without its charms, but it paled in comparison to his earlier, more singular work, and Joy proved to be too scattershot and unfocused to recapture The Fighter’s concentrated, blue-collar appeal.
Now, seven years away from the lens, Russell is officially lost in the mess of his own manic madness with Amsterdam, a busy, bulbous, and too-bombastic mystery comedy.
After following the madcap medical procedures of Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) — a World War I veteran who suffers from persistent pain — Amsterdam initially finds a fittingly fussy focus in this unbridled would-be pharmacist. Trying, often in vain, to discover remedies for the ailments of his fellow brothers in arms, Burt searches for a long-lost sense of peace. Physically as well as emotionally and spiritually. Debilitated by the constant and ceaseless turmoil of his war injuries, which include a missing eye and a back brace that gives him an arching, aching posture, Burt is searching for the medicine that will cure his abrasions, as well as various other afflictions suffered by his fellow veterans. Alas, each would-be treatment causes more headaches than remedies, leaving him in a constant state of longing. And it doesn’t help that his marriage has also proven inharmonious.
The only true stability that Burt has found is in his pact with Harold (John David Washington), a fellow injured veteran, who summons him to perform an autopsy of their former general (Ed Begley Jr.). But the nature of the autopsy is a source of great distress. Under the request of the general’s daughter, Elizabeth (Taylor Swift), Burt searches for any abnormalities related to his autopsy, particularly as Elizabeth believes that her father didn’t die under natural circumstances. But in the midst of this investigation, Harold and Burt get framed for a murder they didn’t commit, and as they attempt to clear their besmirched names, they wind up in the renewed company of Val (Margot Robbie), who nursed them back to health in the Great War and hosts a few more secrets than Burt and Harold once thought. Particularly after their carefree time in Amsterdam — the place where Burt, Harold, and Val shared a trice companionship, and something deeper for the latter two.
Throughout the course of Russell’s latest film, characters are searching for peace between wars. The lingering effects of the Great War fester like an open wound in a hustling and indifferent nation, as the threat of a second Great War rears its ugly head in the margins, teasing another long period of unending distress. We can only do so much to stop what’s set to come, but that doesn’t mean that we can lay idle and settle with the pain. Fascism isn’t always borne from hate. Sometimes, it can arise from the apathy of a wayward world, willing or able to overlook clear dangers in the interest of their own self-interests. Universal harmony may ultimately be a shared myth, but that doesn’t mean we need to quietly reject its potential.
There’s undeniable timeliness to Amsterdam’s messaging, as Russell is clearly using this loosely fact-based account to reckon with our own unsettled and disinterested present and uncertain future. But in the process of telling the story of wartorn characters caught in the agony of their own turmoil, and the restless and bustling anxiety of a troubled society, Russell gets too caught up in his own neurotic filmmaking hang-ups. His unfocused storytelling can’t find the connectivity that saved his earlier, more digestible works. The elixir he seeks to cure the blues, the aches, and whatever other hardships that plague the man throughout this hectic movie are but a fantasy of their own.
There’s a curious irony found throughout Amsterdam; it’s a film that is, at once, constantly in motion and yet seemingly stationary throughout. There’s a general franticness to the characters, as though they’re trying to discover who they are and what they’re about throughout Russell’s unstable filmmaking. It’s hard to know if Russell didn’t flesh out these figures enough, or if he allowed them to play with their dialogue, motivations, and origins throughout the film. But there is rarely a clear sense of intent and purpose for our principal players outside of Burt, who feels like the only personality with a clearly defined sense of self.
Though some viewers might be a bit critical of Bale’s heightened, exaggerated mannerisms, the sort of performance that some folks will bemoan as being “ticky” and “showy,” there’s always a great sense of being and physicality to his performances that are often totally unique and distinctive to their performer, and this one is no exception. Nobody gives a Christian Bale performance like Christian Bale, and it makes sense that the collaborators have stayed in close company since Bale’s Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter. For all their well-publicized bad behavior on set, there’s something to be said about how both of them can find beauty and fluidity in the disorderly. And Bale’s soulful, searching role in Amsterdam shows the actor once again playing into his innate curiosity as a screen persona.
Burt is a man who musters through anguish in the hope of finding some sense of polyphony in life, while also allowing himself to bring that sense of long-lost comfort to the men who struggle in their own external and internal wars. Bale, in the pursuit of finding a man who can’t find what he needs to be content with himself, plays the part tenderly and fussily, the latter in an enjoyable way. He’s the only actor here who really finds the balance that Russell is striving toward, and it’s fortunate for the filmmaker that he’s at the center of the debauchery. Sadly, Bale’s divinity-seeking performance isn’t quite enough to salvage the film past its promising opening, particularly as Russell’s focus wavers and the film becomes more of a direct ensemble.
Margot Robbie does what she can to make the most of her part, but it’s sadly too flighty and fancy-free to find stability. Additionally, Washington, an actor who can command great theatricality, is once again saddled with a role that makes him overly stoic and understated. He’s not yet at a point where he can command attention with just a passing gaze like his father, Denzel, and while he has proven himself to be a solid leading man before, this is the type of performance that can make you wonder what it is that he truly brings to the fold as a performer.
As for the supporting cast, it’s a hodgepodge of lost potential and amusing but uninvolving talent. Robert De Niro fares better than most here as a man who insists that he be known as The General, a charismatic public figure who will put his own life on the line in the interest of upholding the values of this fractured land. Likewise, Michael Shannon and Mike Myers favorably aid the movie as a pair of businessmen with ulterior motives, serving as two somewhat-reliable sources of competency amid the tremors of depravity found around them — a statement that proves to be as true to their performances as it is to their characters. And Zoe Saldana, bless her heart, does all that she can to make a completely underwritten role fizzle with mystique and subtle sadness. Her scenes are often a source of relief in a movie that’s way too bumbling to keep your interest.
Away from these noted A-list stars, however, nearly everyone else leaves more to be desired. Some actors, like Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matthias Schoenearts, and Alessandro Nivola, try to make something of their time on-screen, but their comedic personas lack consistency or even clarity. Rami Malek, Timothy Olyphant, and Andrea Riseborough, meanwhile, play people with intended purpose but often feel neglected for long stretches of the film. It can be hard to remember that they are in the movie, let alone that they play characters striving for depth. And Swift, in an eager, splashy cameo, fares a bit better than she has in other, similarly dour acting roles, but remains on a cinematic losing streak. At least she gets one big, memorable moment.
Away from the mismatched performances, it’s hard to fault Amsterdam’s sharp visuals, dutifully provided by Emmanuel Lubezki, yet there’s something oddly immobilized by his camera work at times. A cinematographer who has often thrived on free-flowing photography, there are several shots here that prove to be oddly placid, as though needlessly constrained. Perhaps that’s the symptom of COVID bubbles and the woes of making a move in the midst of a pandemic, but the inconsistent visuals add to the general disarray of a movie that can’t ever seem content with itself or what it wants to be.
A better Russell movie would have excelled under these pressures, but the filmmaker, at this present moment, seems to be at a point of professional and creative insolence, unable to find the spark and sizzle that made his other, much better movies bloom. Amsterdam is the work of a storyteller who has finally crumbled under the pressure of his own finicky filmmaking, a man who wants to tell a story about finding consonance in times of trouble but only creates more woes for himself as he struggles mightily to make sense of his nonsense.
As such, Amsterdam represents a rare miss and a personal low for the filmmaker who has built a career from telling stories about men and women working against their internal or systemic hardships to discover their best, most successful, most independent, or ultimately truest selves. This is a movie with too few grace notes amid the overbearing noise and undefined symphony. What was once tumultuous in Russell’s work has now become tedious, resulting in a film about the lingering effects of the wars of our past and the wars to come that’s too caught up in its own internal combat to discover the compatibility that it seeks — and whatever compatibility it needs.
Amsterdam is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.