David O. Russell’s ‘Amsterdam’ Unfortunately Falls Flat
Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to like a movie, it simply doesn’t work for us. In those instances, I typically attempt to focus on what I did like and offer an explanation of why it fell short of expectations. And it’s that word, “expectations,” that is usually the culprit. High expectations often lead to disappointment, whereas ‘low’ or ‘no’ expectations at least have a shot of ending up with a pleasant surprise. So when the writer-director of Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Fighter (2010) rolls out Amsterdam, his first film in seven years, and his cast is filled with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, and other talented actors…well, high expectations are in order. Unfortunately, so is the disappointment.
David O. Russell is the filmmaker noted above, and despite some disturbing accusations made against him recently, his cinematic track record and ability to attract deep and talented casts and crews make his new project something to check out. This one is inspired by the true story of a 1933 political conspiracy, and that’s where the story begins, before flashing back to 1918 and ultimately returning to 1933. It’s during the flashback where we see the beginnings of the friendship between Burt Berendsen (Oscar winner Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington).
It’s here that we also witness the presence of racism in the military during the Great War. When Burt and Harold are injured, they are cared for by nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Harold and Valerie fall in love, and third wheel Burt joins them as a roommate in Amsterdam, where they live a blissful bohemian existence…right up until Burt returns home to his wife and Valerie vanishes.
Returning to 1933, we find Burt is a doctor experimenting with multiple medical options focused on injured war veterans, and Harold is a distinguished lawyer. Burt has a scarred face and a glass eye from his war injuries, and Harold has been contacted by the daughter (Taylor Swift) of their former commanding officer (Ed Begley Jr.). The daughter suspects foul play in the death of her father, who was scheduled to give a speech at an upcoming military reunion gala. Ms. Swift’s appearance is in fact swift, and leads to the murder and scandalous autopsy findings.
Going through all that happens next would be as convoluted on paper as it was on screen. There are so many characters and so many storylines and so many familiar faces that the film couldn’t possibly be expected to flow smoothly. And it doesn’t. A mention of some of the supporting cast includes standout Anya Taylor-Joy as the wife of filthy rich Tom Voze, played by (Oscar winner) Rami Malek.
When the murder occurs, Burt and Harold are the prime suspects of the detectives, played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola. Andrea Riseborough plays Burt’s estranged and ultra-snobby wife Beatrice, while Chris Rock is another old war buddy of our wrongfully accused murder suspects. Robert DeNiro (another Oscar winner) plays General Gil Dillenbeck (who we learn is based on real-life Major General Smedley Butler). Others making an appearance include Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as American and British spies, Timothy Olyphant as an undefined henchman, Zoe Saldana as the autopsy nurse, and the always dependable Colleen Camp and Beth Grant. Now you understand what I mean by so many characters and familiar faces.
All of the actors are as strong as you would expect. Mr. Bale and Ms. Robbie go “big,” while Mr. Washington stays in a low-key mode for balance. The film has an unusual look through the camera of 3-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and seems to be filled with an endless stream of close-ups shot upward at the subject’s face. It’s not a whodunnit since we see the crime happen, and instead is more of a “we must solve the case to avoid prison” – kind of a quasi-comedy caper film, only they aren’t trying to get away with anything. It’s also not quite a farce, and is a madcap with a shortage of “mad.” We see the power play between various factions that catches the unsuspecting types in the crosshairs, while raising points of fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism.
The film meanders when it’s not downright choppy, and it often plays like a scripted series trying too hard to appear improvisational. I believe the message is the power of friendship and love wins over the lust for power, however, it’s hard to know for sure. Drake as an Executive Producer adds an element of interest, but as a movie, this one mostly falls flat despite the efforts of a sterling cast.