Something occurred to me about five minutes into Amsterdam, and it basically ruined the movie for me: This is David O. Russell trying (and failing) to make a Coen Brothers movie. Basically every single scene, I thought to myself, “if this was done by the Coens, it would be similar but 200% better.” I think that’s a good summary of Amsterdam. It has the vague air of cleverness without any of the gray matter; delusions of style without any taste; irony as understood by someone who’s never read a book. Smarm all the way down.
Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are veterans of World War 1 — and I hope you don’t mind hearing the word “veterans” because it’s one in every six words in the screenplay — in the late 1930s who stumble into the middle of a fascist conspiracy. They’re joined by Harold’s lover, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whom they met in a military hospital. (They’re veterans, you see.)
Amsterdam is 134 minutes long and it feels longer. The Coens would have made this in 95 minutes. Russell makes all sorts of storytelling blunders… and some triumphs, too: For example, he kills off Taylor Swift abruptly in the first fifteen minutes. But back to the blunders: Russell cuts to an extended flashback at a most awkward time, which throws off both the film’s pace and the story’s sense of time. Events that happen a decade apart are crammed together, so there’s no sense of lost romance or drifting spirits that the story assumes is there.
One of Russell’s strengths as a director is typically his ability to coax solid performances out of charismatic leads. And there is plenty of charisma to go around in this cast: in addition to the three leads of Bale, Washington, and Robbie, the ensemble includes Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Shannon. (Catches breath.) So why do they all suck?
That’s a bit harsh; it’s not that nobody is giving a good performance. It’s that almost nobody is giving a good performance. Bale seems convinced he’s in a much better movie, breathing a peculiar life and neurotic springiness to his character. That seriously might be the only performance that brings anything even remotely special or interesting: Everyone else is delivering dialogue like they read the script for the first time that morning and are memorizing lines between takes.
The film’s story is a mess in drastic need of editing. It drags on and on, shifts tones about four times, and shifts themes another four times on top of that. The big payoff about the affiliation of the villains is delivered with such a thud that I genuinely don’t know if it was meant to be funny or dramatic in its conception. It climaxes at an event that in the proper hands could have been a stirring culmination: a military gala gathering all of the characters, the future of freedom on the brink. (You see, they’re at a military gala because the main characters are veterans.) But it’s a deflating ending, not a thrilling one that has no energy in its twists and double-crossings.
Amsterdam at least goes down easy thanks to the production values. It’s really nice to watch a film that is interested in being a genuine piece of high-production cinema. The production details are very good. And the cinematography by the legendary Emmanuel Lubezki is more than good; it’s masterful, capturing misty streets and glowing incandescent bulbs in lovely ambers and greens and grays. It is so worthy of a better film.
Russell is well-documented as a massively shitty person at this point, so I don’t have much guilt recommending you spend your precious 2+ hours elsewhere. Like maybe an actual Coen brothers movie, not some crappy knock off.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film