In AMSTERDAM, filmmaker David O. Russell has assembled the toniest cast in a movie all year, along with expensive production values, and a script with a timely message about fascism. If only the film was better. It’s part comedy, part mystery, part social commentary, all rolled into one, but it needed to be funnier, more thrilling, and less hectoring. It’s a noble effort, but it’s also one of the biggest missed opportunities of 2022.
The film’s problems start with the main character Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale). He’s got fright wig hair, a glass eye that’s always popping gout, and a Brooklyn accent just this side of Bugs Bunny. His cartoonish characteristics suggest AMSTERDAM is going to be a broad comedy, but no one else pitches their performance as extravagantly, and the story that he’s in the middle of can’t decide upon a tone. One minute it’s trying to be farcical like his look, then the next, a class study chock full of pathos. And that’s the first 15 minutes. Then the story takes a nasty turn and its attempts at fun start to sour.
Things get dark and ugly when Burt meets up with his old WWI buddy Harold Woodman (John David Washington), now a well-heeled attorney. They rendezvous with Harold’s troubled new client Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), who suspects her father and their former CO was murdered. Before you can say “glorified cameo,” she’s swiftly thrown under a speeding car and killed. And Russell makes sure we see her crumple under the tires. It’s vicious and grotesque. Unnecessarily so.
Burt and Harold are pinned as her killers by the real thug who pushed her (an unrecognizable Timothy Olyphant under heavy makeup) and they go on the lam. The murder mystery plot kicks in, but Russell isn’t any more content with rolling out a proper whodunnit than he was in establishing a character-driven comedy. Instead, he flashes back to an overly-long sojourn overseas during WWI and its aftermath in Amsterdam. In both locales, Burt and Harold build a bond with progressive nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) and she and Harold even evolve into lovers. It’s a lot of plot, but it feels almost like a third movie versus the two that Russell has already set up.
By the one-hour mark, the film starts to drag with too many stories, wildly varying tones, and a lack of wit. By the time the third act starts, with our three leads now battling burgeoning forces of fascism taking root in America decades later, Russell squanders any goodwill left by turning the remainder of his story into a heavy-handed political diatribe. It becomes more of a lecture than anything.
Russell gets fine work out of Bale, Robbie, and Washington, but he can’t pull all his other stars into a cogent ensemble. Despite the presence of Anya Taylor-Joy, Andrea Riseborough, Alessandro Nivola, Matthias Schoenaerts, Zoe Saldana, and Robert De Niro, Russell doesn’t give them enough to do, or even clever things to say. There’s precious little wit in most of it and there’s not even one good comedic set-piece to invite comparisons to the Marx Brothers, Blake Edwards, or Wes Anderson. Rami Malek has fun with his role as an oily one-percenter but it’s not enough to save such an unfocused hodge-podge.
In films like AMERICAN HUSTLE and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, Russell masterfully combined side-splitting humor with genuine pathos and plenty of tension, but here, his concoction becomes hopelessly muddled by so many disparate ingredients. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, Judy Becker’s production design, and the costumes by J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky are all gorgeous, but their beauty works against a story that’s supposed to essentially be a comedy. AMSTERDAM feels like a lot of ideas and a lot of moods all fighting each other, but none of them prevail. And you know who loses then, right?