David O. Russell’s latest film, Amsterdam, is a star-studded, period comedy based on real-life events (sorta). It’s the kind of film that, in past decades, got a big push during awards season. The term “Oscar bait” is mainly read as a pejorative but in the case of a fun romp with Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington starring as a trio of WWI vets trying to solve a murder in 1933 New York, the phrase is somewhat stronger. Amsterdam owns its lofty aspirations for Oscar gold. Still, based on the low 30% Rotten Tomato score, perhaps said tale is too old-fashioned for multiple noms in 2023. A shame, as the kind of onscreen enjoyment the film is teeming with too often eludes movies looking for such prestige.
A shaggy dog tale about a pair of guys framed for a murder they didn’t commit lets the stars – and the “oh, it’s THAT actor” supporting cast – do the heavy lifting. Russell’s script of awkward comedic situations, like most of the filmmaker’s stories, is highly stylized yet loose enough for the performances to feel alive.
When it comes to the story, though, it’s a balance of too familiar and clever surprises. Do I really care about the authenticity of doctor Burt Berendsen (Bale), who aims to help vets with forward-thinking prosthetics? I mean, sort of… But at the same time, when Burt’s not helping former soldiers restore the parts of themselves lost to the war, we’re treated to zany sketches involving his own plastic eyeball, which keeps popping out because, well, Burt tends to get slapped a lot. Meanwhile, Harold Woodman (Washington) is a smart, charming attorney whose skin color always meant he was underappreciated, if not treated outright horribly. Lastly, there’s Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), the woman Harold loves but whose bouts with mental illness display some of the film’s warmest moments.
During the war, the trio met and hung out in the titular city of Amsterdam, a kind of paradise where an unlikely bond was forged, and everything just clicked for the briefest of times. Russell wisely uses flashbacks to this era (the 1920s) for laughs as well as a sentimental longing. The situation can feel a tad cliched if it were not for the outstanding performances by the leads. Ultimately, nitpicks aside, it’s hard to argue against any scenes where Robbie, Bale, and Washington seem to be having the times of their lives.
The bulk of the film is focused on the murder mystery. What’s unique about the story, however, is how the who’s and why’s that pile up are closer in spirit to The Big Lebowski or other films where the mystery is not really the point: it’s all about the journey. Yet in a first (or at least a first in some time), the story’s last act hits like a sledgehammer. Not only are the aforementioned “who’s and why’s” vital to the story, but they also speak volumes to the world we now reside. It’s the conspiracy, which involves the killing of a US Senator, that holds Amsterdam together, and contributed to America’s struggle with race, nationalism, and other bits; a fresh reminder that the ugly side of history doesn’t so much repeats itself as never quite go away.
Like previous Russell features, the supporting cast is packed with big names in minor roles. Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malik, Chris Rock, and Michael Shannon are well used, as are vets to Russell’s ensemble like Robert De Niro. Occasionally the “small parts, big names” casting can be distracting, like when Taylor Swift shows up for the film’s opening. Swift’s performance is several notches above her previous stints (she even sings for like 30 sec!) on the big screen (Valentine’s Day, The Giver), but it still stinks of the “Swift wearing 30s attire is cool” vibe.
As a fan of director David O. Russell’s best films (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook), Amsterdam ranks third. The story, settings, and especially the cast feel like the film will be one of his most re-watchable for any fan of the 00s era of indie films. Will Oscar come calling? Not sure, but in the end, I’ll take an engaging tale told by a skilled craftsman like Russell, who never fails to be supported by A-list talent.