This review of “Amsterdam” was first published on Sept. 27, 2022.
For a while now, David O. Russell has been the problematic uncle in the industry family, certain to entertain and disturb in equal measure, depending on what one is willing to overlook when the sausage is being made (or even, considering some reports, when he’s away from the factory).
That the Oscar-nominated writer-director is in the mix again with the period comedy-adventure “Amsterdam” after seven years away (since 2015’s lumpy “Joy”) indicates a willingness in Hollywood to endure the reminders of his behavioral issues and to bet on the recipe of star power, emotional smarts and provocative farce that forged “Flirting with Disaster,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”
Only the first ingredient is in evidence with “Amsterdam,” however, and no amount of wattage from Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Zoe Saldana, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek or Robert De Niro — or even an A-list B-team of Taylor Swift, Chris Rock, Andrea Riseborough, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon — can lift this flat, unfunny genre-fluid whatsit from its performative stumbling toward contemporary relevance.
At first, when it’s 1933 New York, we sense an eccentric buddy-picture in the making, centered on themes of integration and the treatment of veterans. Bale’s character (and semi-narrator) is Burt Berendsen, a scraggly, half-Catholic/half-Jewish doctor focused on new medicines for wounded Great War soldiers like himself (he lost an eye) and estranged from his status-conscious Park Avenue wife (Riseborough).
Answering a call from his lawyer pal Harold (Washington), a fellow vet, the pair are drawn into unraveling the mysterious death of a respected general (Ed Begley Jr.) who had been slated to speak at their planned veterans’ reunion event. The general’s posh daughter (Swift, also describing her appearance) suspects foul play, which pans out when Burt and Harold find themselves the framed target of a criminal inquiry led by two detectives (Schoenaerts and Nivola).
But then we flashback to 1918 Europe and a blood-soaked but jovial bro-and-ro-mance about healing and freedom detailing the origins of Burt’s and Harold’s friendship in a French army hospital, and their link-up with attentive, alluring nurse Valerie (Robbie) to live a life of art, invention and love in bohemian Amsterdam. We also meet a pair of birding Allied spymasters (Myers the Brit and Shannon the Yank), and the forced quirk, chaotic style, and weak chemistry — especially between Washington and Robbie — seems more pressing a concern than whether a coherent story is being told.
Character overload and plot convolution reaches critical levels when it’s 1933 again. Malek and Taylor-Joy pop up as a wealthy couple with an intense interest in aiding Burt’s and Harold’s investigation, and De Niro emerges in elder-statesman mode (which he wears well) as a decorated general who may be the key to exposing a nefarious conspiracy.
But by this point, the swerve toward ticking-clock thriller with a villainous reveal feels like a bad prosthetics job on a touch-and-go patient; Russell’s ham-fisted message calling for peacetime diligence in a divided world regarding the nexus of power, money and influence plays like an underlined afterthought scribbled into the margins of a script that wasn’t being used anyway. Learning, as the end credits begin, that De Niro’s character is based on a real military figure of some historical consequence between the wars does little to reconfigure in our mind the tiresome mess just concluded.
Russell’s brand of Sturges-inspired madcappery has always been a high-wire act of energy and tone, but “Amsterdam” doesn’t even feel like an “I Heart Huckabees” or “Joy” misfire. It’s sloppy and disconnected, crammed with thinly drawn characters play-acting ‘30s screwball as Russell’s unmoored camera and jarring editing force the issue instead of capturing something genuine which, even with a game cast, clearly wasn’t there to begin with. Bale’s oddball Pacino-doing-Columbo shtick has its moments, however, and he and Saldana’s flinty autopsy nurse share a few moments of vulnerability hinting that a more tightly focused narrative would have served this matchup better.
Russell’s artless drift extends to technical areas, too, in that this may be the worst-looking movie of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s storied career — the past rendered with a relentlessly flat, grey-brown paperiness that dulls the senses and creates a visual sameness across continents, locations and production designer Judy Becker’s otherwise studiously authentic interiors.
When he’s firing on all cylinders, Russell can throw a party that’s welcoming and wonderfully tense, and he clearly wanted that same vibe from “Amsterdam” as it tries to valorize friendship and love while pointing fingers at a whole host of societal ills. Instead, every scene feels like a rambling improv hastily assembled after audience members shouted out things like, “Glass eye!” “Veterans!” “1930s New York!” “Taylor Swift!” “Fascism!”
“Amsterdam” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 7 via 20th Century Studios.