Here’s an example of having too much of a good thing. While David O. Russell is not exactly known for his sterling reputation as a person on and off his movie sets, he does attract a lot of good talent to his various films. Amsterdam is a period mystery comedy thriller featuring some of the top talent of today’s modern performers, plus Robert De Niro for good measure. Russell even has multiple Oscar nominees and winners working with him behind the camera to ideally produce one of the best-looking and sounding films one could ask for from a studio picture designed to be nothing more than a movie (no sequels, IP, or anything else). So, of course, it’s a shame that the film ultimately rang hollow, despite a lot of good effort from many involved.
Set in the 1930s, the film largely follows Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a WWI veteran with a prosthetic eye. He specializes in helping other disfigured veterans and experimenting with new forms of pharmaceutical drugs, which puts him at odds with those who can challenge his medical license. Regardless, Burt is best friends with another fellow veteran, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), and a nurse from the Great War, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three have made a pact to always look out for each other, which matters now more than ever, as they have become suspects in a murder involving a U.S. Senator who was one of their former superior officers.
This is the plot in a nutshell. Suppose the film didn’t have much more to explore than who is behind this murder. In that case, I could imagine something more engaging being delivered. Not that a film is not supposed to have more on its mind than the central plot, but Amsterdam goes out of its way to force so many subplots, characters, and ideas onto the screen that it took me a good hour to get a handle on the rhythm, which was about the time it seemed as though the movie understood what it wanted to be.
With that in mind, I’m all for a zany caper. This fall seems stacked with them, between the already released See How They Run and Confess, Fletch (both good!), and the upcoming Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion. How Amsterdam seemed to miss out on delivering better feels like a case of Russell having too much to work with. However, even that’s not too much of an issue. If the worst thing one can say about a film is that it has too many actors in minor roles who get to have a ball with their quirky characters, then they should be considered lucky. No, what ultimately sinks the film is that all its messiness still doesn’t add up to much redeeming emotional value.
It certainly wants to. Russell makes it very clear through Bale’s character that kindness is key. Much of the plotting ends up dovetailing into the early days of the Nazis and the stray factions of Americans supporting similar beliefs. Something is interesting there, but the film continually bungles the purpose of heading into that territory. Given where we are as a society today, I can understand not wanting to do too much to add subtlety. However, this film also allows De Niro to espouse many of the same thoughts he has shared many times in real life. The idea of boiling down all relevant social themes to “we need to protect kindness” feels too simple for an R-rated adult drama that can’t figure out how far into screwball territory it needs to go.
And yet, the film has this ridiculously overqualified cast. Bale is terrific here, as one expects. As opposed to a drama that may give him too much room to play with his quirks (his similarly glass-eyed character in The Big Short is a weak link), a broader film like Amsterdam makes good use of how Bale can constantly refer to his various physical limitations and other qualities. He shares great chemistry with everyone, which easily helps. He even has me close to respecting what Amsterdam aims to accomplish, even though it still falls flat.
I wish the core trio that includes Bale didn’t feel so hit and miss. There’s nothing wrong with these performers (Robbie commits to some fun physical comedy, though Washington comes off blander than I usually see him), but the fun they have in Amsterdam, the city that essentially equates to their Shangri-La, is the highlight of the times we see these three together. The actual mystery plot has more ebbs and flows in terms of how involved each of them is and how committed the film wants them to be to humorous shenanigans.
The rest of the cast do what they can, with some finding more success than others. Chris Rock feels miscast, as if Russell didn’t know what kind of dialogue to give him, so the comedian just feels left out to hang. On the other hand, many wide-eyed looks matched with droll line readings from Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek make at least one of them not seem like they’re hamming it up but instead delivering a good comedic performance. Additionally, on the comedic side, Michael Shannon and Mike Myers play well off each other as intelligence agents from their respective countries who also share an interest in birding. As detectives tracking the trio, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola are even more successful yet sorely underused.
As far as performers who are quite good but belong in another film, well, Zoe Saldana and Timothy Olyphant win that prize, hands down. Olyphant brings a slippery menace to his role as a scarred assassin. Saldana shares a few terrific scenes with Bale, emphasizing her status as a person of color in an important medical role, yet looked down upon by others for obvious reasons in 1930s America. Sadly, there’s a whole plotline involving Bale and his wife (Andrea Riseborough) that seems to only exist to make things more convoluted, taking away from what else could be gotten out of Bale’s character were he to have more romantic designs on either Saldana or even Robbie (who is with Washington’s character, without ever becoming an issue for the trio).
Shot by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, one can’t deny how good this film looks regarding its period recreations and elaborate shot choices. However, unlike other Russell films, the editing style does little service to the film. As well utilized as the locations, costumes, and other details are, compared to Three Kings, The Fighter, or Silver Linings Playbook, I found real issues with the pacing and grasping of what the film wanted to feel the most important. Russell tends to make films that can be scattered and a bit shaggy, but as one who generally likes most of his movies (give or take a Huckabee), I felt far more lost than I think I should have been.
There may have been a lot on the page when it came to putting together this story (and a lot of it really happened, the film cheekily suggests in its opening). Still, there’s only so much to admire when the end result feels disjointed in various ways. There are certainly things to like about Amsterdam. Bale, alone, does a lot of work trying to carry this film over the finish line, but try as I might to be kind, it’s still an overstuffed feature that coasts too much on ideas that aren’t very well executed. Amusing at times, but empty.