‘Amsterdam’- Movie Review: What Happened to David O. Russell?

David O. Russell. Now that’s a name Hollywood hasn’t chattered much about in years. He’s not the writer-director I want to work with if I were an actor. Not just because of a severely controversial past I can’t go into that we all know now, but reading about his abusive behavior behind the scenes with his actors made me dislike him more.

That said, and separating the art from the artist, he started the early 2010s with two knockouts in his filmography. The Fighter is a phenomenal sports drama, and Silver Linings Playbook is one of my favorite films of the last decade. Since then, nothing has even come close to them. Personally, I think American Hustle is one of the most overrated films of all time and Joy was very underwhelming as a serious awards contender.

Some didn’t highly anticipate his latest Amsterdam, but there were some high hopes for his first feature film in seven years. Just look at the cast we got here, and while the trailer didn’t give me an idea of what the tone would be, I kept an open mind. But much like American Hustle, this was his attempt at spinning another story that’s particularly true where it had all the potential to be discussed in this current awards season. Though if you’re like me and thought this mystery period piece with a star-studded cast would be a hit, I’m still waiting because what we got here, unfortunately, is a misfire. 

Based loosely on actual events, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are best friends who first met each other when serving in World War I in 1918 France. Their lives were saved by Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse who nursed them back to health. She’s also an artist who makes art out of shrapnel. Since then, she takes them to Amsterdam, and they bonded into a beautiful friendship that will always have each other’s backs. Now it’s 1933 New York and they’ve gone their separate ways, Burt is a disabled soldier with a glass eye who became a doctor practicing his medicine on fellow veterans, while Harold is an attorney. One day, a woman named Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) asks Burt and Harold to find out what happened to her father, senator Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who died under the circumstances. Once they perform the autopsy on the body, both of them are wanted for a murder they didn’t commit and must clear their names to uncover the truth.

On paper, you would think this had the potential to be a cautionary tale about the importance of friendship and love in a time when it’s hard to trust. Unfortunately, even with an ambitious scale, unlike anything Russell hasn’t done before, it’s never as enjoyable as it tried to be. With a movie that’s also dealing with truths on racism and fascism in American history, I had to expect Russell was on drugs in coming up with a mishmash of comedy, mystery, and thriller. The problem is the movie has no identity. The emotional connection to the characters was lacking, making his direction ultimately disappointing. It appeared as though we were intended to forget that the objective of seeing this friendship is to care about the predicament they found themselves in.

But why Amsterdam wasn’t the prestige of amazement it wanted to be should be blamed on its messy, unfocused screenplay written by Russell. Seriously, trying to remember the plot took me forever. It took me close to an hour to realize how confused I was about what was happening. At first, I thought this was an adaptation of a novel and this was made out to be a poor translation from book to screen, but it just had scenes of characters talking with pretty stilted dialogue that wasn’t believable just to set up the next scene.

The promise it showed in how Burt and Harold got entangled in this murder made me curious to see where it would develop after a lengthy sequence providing the background of how the three main characters met. But, after that, it seemed to drop off and go into this much larger conspiracy thriller with characters talking that’s never as interesting or fun as it should be.

Everything afterward had me feeling the overlong 134-minute runtime when it felt like it was throwing different storylines in the mix. It was almost like the Oscar-nominated director couldn’t help to copy the style of the more fascinating films of the Coen brothers, Robert Altman or even Wes Anderson. Whereas they have a good sense of blending crime and comedy in their style of filmmaking, the tone never hits when the attempts at quirky humor are too dry to be funny.

Despite the messy writing at play, it’s an impressive cast you only wish were in a better movie than this. I love seeing Bale in anything, even though he can still be the standout in a rather mediocre film. And while he won’t receive another Oscar nomination to his name, his performance as the earnest Burt is excellent. Robbie will make us instantly fall in love with her all over again as Valerie. Washington as Harold was solid, despite being the weakest of the three since his character was the least interesting. Individually, all three could carry this on their shoulders. The chemistry, though, gets some taking used to, especially the romance between Washington and Robbie.

Besides the leads, it’s insane to have so many actors- which includes Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Rami Malek, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, and even Robert De Niro. And yes, Taylor Swift appears in this briefly at the film’s start, with a memorable moment that will be discussed for the wrong reasons. How did this ensemble get involved when most felt like extended cameos, especially Olyphant? The non-energetic dialogue makes them appear as if they had shot their scene once and moved on.

Out of the supporting cast, though, Taylor-Joy and Malek weren’t too bad at making the best out of their scenes as the upper-class married couple Libby and Tom Voze. This convinced me they should do more comedic roles. Everybody else almost felt like they were trying too hard in their scenes since it underwrote them to give in to any authenticity. Sometimes it was like they were in different movies in the scenes they were in.

Even with this talented cast involved and a helping hand from Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (not his best work) and Daniel Pemberton’s score that captures your attention initially, everything chasing toward the end was a chore to sit through. Worst enough, we won’t be looking at this for any notable awards, quite the opposite of Russell’s last few movies where they received wins and nominations for acting. I’d say it’s prime “Oscar bait.” Nothing is more of a letdown seeing back-to-back disappointments at the movies (the other being Don’t Worry Darling). As soon as I walked out, I instantly regretted putting it on my most anticipated list of the fall.

Amsterdam is Russell at his most disappointing. Its three leads (Bale, Robbie, and Washington) carry the film, but he massively wasted them and the rest of the ensemble on a plodding, convoluted story that never captured the intrigue. This tried too hard to be an overachieving dramedy with a heart of gold, but it made me believe we won’t be seeing anything amazing from Russell in the future since it’s one of the worst movies of the year.

Grade: [D+]

Amsterdam will begin playing in theaters nationwide on October 7, 2022. Runtime: 134 Minutes. Rated R for brief violence and bloody images. Studio: 20th Century Studios.

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