At this point, you know what you’re getting when you watch a David O. Russell film. You’re going to see an A-list cast, usually with some returning players, engaging in a kind of organized cinematic chaos. There will either be very little plot or an oddly dense one, with heady ideas. When it works, you get something incredibly charming like Silver Linings Playbook or truly compelling like The Fighter. When it doesn’t, it can seem like a garish mess. While Amsterdam, Russell has split the difference. There are definite highs, but also a sense that something is holding it back from working like it should.
Amsterdam has all that makes Russell’s work both fascinating and frustrating. It’s jaunty but messy, with strong acting but a lack of focus. In many ways, it’s like a cross between American Hustle and Joy, unable to come together like the former, but working better than the latter. Whether that sounds like a treat or a form of torture depends entirely on how this style of filmmaking works for you.
Set largely in the 1930s, this is the story of Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), Harold Woodman (John David Washington), and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three meet in Amsterdam during the first World War and form a bond. Back in New York, Burt is a doctor, struggling with drug addiction and a missing eye, while Harold is a lawyer, with the two often collaborating. Hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) to look into her father’s death, the pair are quickly suspected of having a hand in something nefarious. Seeking help from Tom Voze (Rami Malek), they also discover that Valerie is stateside, bringing them together again.
As the trio looks into not just the murder, but the conspiracy, something happens, and not just their pursuit by Detective Lem Getwiller (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Detective Hiltz (Alessandro Nivola). In short order, the close friends find themselves at the center of one of the most outrageous secret plots in American history, spurred on by potential government agents Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) and Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers). It also brings them into contact with General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), who these shadowy figures have designs on. The how and the why, I’ll leave for you to discover, should you opt to take in the movie.
This cast is more than game to play in Russell’s sandbox. Christian Bale is having a joyous time as always, in the most broadly comedic role he’s had in some time. John David Washington and Margot Robbie have a star power that shines through their somewhat underwritten roles. They do have solid chemistry together, which is essential for this movie to work at all. The rest of the supporting cast, in addition to those mentioned above, is full of big names too, including Ed Begley Jr., Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Anya Taylor-Joy, and many more.
David O. Russell shows off all of his strengths and weaknesses with Amsterdam. With A-list talent behind the camera to compliment those in front, he has the best in the business to help him achieve his vision. Emmanuel Lubezki is handling the cinematography, Daniel Pemberton composing the score, and Jay Cassidy editing, so the messiness of Russell is clearly purposeful. His direction supports his cast, at least performance-wise, but his writing muddies the waters. The ultimate story he ends up with is fascinating, but he certainly takes his sweet time getting there. A tighter focus on the plot he’s clearly interested in would have paid major dividends.
Compared to his prior works, Amsterdam is middle of the road and not likely to be an Oscar player. It’s better than Accidental Love or Joy, but it’s certainly not on the level of American Hustle, The Fighter, Flirting With Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook, Spanking the Monkey, or Three Kings. So, make of that what you will. The more you like Russell’s films, the more you’re likely to jive with this one.
Amsterdam is not going to blow you away, but it’s better than many of the outright dismissals of the flick. It’s lesser Russell, to be sure, but it still offers up a lot of stars having fun. In the end, it makes for a reasonably good time at the movies, if a forgettable one. The film goes down easy, even if it doesn’t leave much of a lasting impact.