On paper, the new film written and directed by David O. Russell, titled Amsterdam, checks all the boxes a filmmaker hopes to achieve. An A-list cast full of top tier talent, a compelling story, flawless execution, a groundbreaking score to capture the spirit of the time in which the story takes place, and the production design to match. These films tend to come out later on the release schedule when the weather changes and the conversations become more serious when discussing the possibilities of award season consideration. In reality, Amsterdam does little to help its argument in what should be a walk in the park for the veteran director.
With all of the potential Amsterdam boasts, rarely does it come close in achieving that outcome. What happens on screen is the result of a plan falling apart – threads are created between characters that become empty calories while the main throughline struggles to keep itself afloat.
“A lot of this actually happened” flashes on a black screen as the film begins, a tale that spans decades and is loosely based on a political conspiracy that would literally alter the course of history if the right chess pieces fell to the other side. Whether true or not, O. Russell banks on the underlying message of allegorical metaphors to feebly get his point across. Getting to that epiphany however is a long monotonous journey that never gains the type of momentum nor energy needed to care. At a lengthy 134 minutes, the time passes slower than the characters discovering the plot that would become the eventual climax of the film. The crescendo that never breaks after a buildup of detours and side stories that are even less interesting that the characters that are at the forefront.
To say Amsterdam is full of talent from top to bottom, left to right would be a complete understatement. A-List talent makes up the entire ensemble, but O. Russell’s story focuses on 3 out of the many recognizable names that appear on screen. While forced to go overseas by his in-laws, Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) meets Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) forming a lifelong pact of brotherhood. Harold would go on to become a lawyer while Burt would open his own practice and treat veterans like himself who happen to be severely wounded from the “war to end all wars”. While overseas fighting in France, Burt and Harold come across a nurse named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who tends to their wounds, becoming the third person in the pact.
Outside of Burt, Valerie and Harold, Amsterdam introduces more characters that have talented faces attached but the development stays surface level to the main plot. Setting the film in motion is the death of Burt and Harold’s commanding officer, the one who introduced the two, Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.). Believing her father’s death to be a murder, Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) hires Burt and Harold to perform the autopsy, along with Irma St. Claire (Zoe Saldaña). What Burt and Harold uncover after performing the autopsy affects the course of history.
Frequent collaborator with O. Russell, Christian Bale continues to give outstanding performances. The actor’s ability to get lost in a role is truly remarkable. Burt is the underdog you root for 10 times out of 10. Alongside is John David Washington, son of Denzel and quickly has made his own name as an actor. Both Washington and Bale’s chemistry resembles the brotherhood their counterparts hold in high regard. And with the addition of Robbie, the three form a unique trio that commands the spotlight among the greater ensemble.
What O. Russell puts together is impressive, names that everyone knows and faces we frequently see. Because of this, certain characters only have a moment in the spotlight, to say their line or perform an action before O. Russell’s story shifts away and continues on its path leaving much of the talent in a state of limbo – hoping to make another appearance on screen in the 134-minute runtime. An impressive cast only gets you so far, O. Russell’s screenplay starts telling one story but when more are introduced, the threads unravel, leaving an unfocused story full of varying conflicting tones to continue on.
If the story was never explained to be based on true events, I would have believed it to be completely fiction. Aside from the films shortcomings – the slow pace, shallow characters and a dizzying array of subplots that don’t add any addition heft to the narrative, what puzzles me the most is the title. Burt, Valerie and Harold spend a fraction of their lives in the most populated city in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is where the bond between the three is forged but once the film gets comfortable on ‘The Business Plot’, the city is rarely mentioned until the epilogue.
Considering names like Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Rami Malik, Robert De Niro, and Matthias Schoenaets round out a powerhouse cast, how these actors are utilized is a missed opportunity given the potential O. Russell sets up. Along with last years Don’t Look Up, Amsterdam is at the mercy of its own self-inflicted wounds. With a tighter runtime and better placed jokes to balance out the gravity of the political conspiracy, Amsterdam could have been the first real contender for the upcoming award season. The result is a bunch of scenes strung together haphazardly with several endpoints that continue the elongation of a story that should have ended with the previous scene.
Screenplay By: David O. Russell
Directed By: David O. Russell
Music By: Daniel Pemberton
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 14 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 33%