Film Review: Amsterdam
Director: David O. Russell
Regency Enterprises and DreamCrew
In Theaters 10.07
David O. Russell’s films have been among my favorites for decades, though I always enter the theater with mixed feelings due to his reputation for an explosive temper and abusive behavior on set. In the case of Amsterdam, the auteur’s latest release, I exited the theater with a lot of mixed feelings as well.
Amsterdam follows three friends, Burt (Christian Bale), Valerie (Margot Robbie) and Harold (John David Washington), who had spent the best time of their lives together in the titular city as the two men recovered from the physical and emotional scars inflicted upon them in the first great war. They eventually parted ways, with Burt and Harold returning home, though they find themselves drawn together again when the two men, Burt now a doctor and Harold now a lawyer, find themselves falsely implicated in the murder of a young woman. Our duo soon discovers that they are caught in the middle of a vast conspiracy, and they turn to Valerie for help. The story blends fact with fiction as the intrepid trio races to uncover the truth and expose dark secrets connected to the rise of fascism in Europe, which may have some disturbing connections to capitalism, greed and naked ambition right here in the United States.
Russell, once again working from his own script, blends fact and fiction into a story that’s involving, topical, and entertaining. However, it’s also so overstuffed and convoluted that it becomes rather frustrating at times. The basic historical elements that form the inspiration for the film are quite interesting, and the parallels to Trump’s America and the racial othering and despotism that continues to grow in so many corners of society is more than just a worthy subject: it’s a message that desperately needs to be shared. At a time when it seems as though we get eight new horror flicks per week, Amsterdam stands out by dealing with subjects that are honestly and objectively frightening. Sadly, Russell has made the story too difficult to follow to be entirely effective.
The richly detailed costume and production design are hard not to love, as is Daniel Pemberton‘s bouncy and often beautiful score. The heart of the film, however, still lies in the always-appealing lead actors. It’s a shame that they find themselves competing for screen time with such a ridiculously large supporting cast, which seems to be so large because Russell wants to cram as many stars as he can into the film. The ensemble includes Taylor Swift, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Zoë Saldaña, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon and Ed Begley, Jr. That’s acting talent—and Taylor Swift—assembled in one place, and as a result, few of them get a chance to do anything of substance.
Bale anchors Amsterdam with yet another brilliant performance, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that, after the retirement of Daniel Day Lewis, Bale is the most intensely talented, committed and versatile actor working in film, however batshit the former Batman may be. Robbie manages to surprise me with her overpowering presence with each film she does, and she’s in fine form here. Washington is easily the weakest of the three, though he’s not bad. The still relatively new leading man inherited his legendary father’s commanding vocal power, and he becomes more comfortable with it in each film he does. The younger Washington still suffers from one of Hollywood’s least expressive faces, and it’s all the more pronounced here as he’s asked to play opposite two such powerhouses. Malek and Taylor-Joy are quite effective, and watching Myers playing his role as a spot homage to distinguished fellow Austin Powers alumnus, Michael York, is a hoot. Russell opts for consistently amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, and the approach works more often than not, especially whenever Bale is front and center.
The film’s message that simply being good easily ”trumps” being great any day of the week counts for a lot, and there’s far too much I loved about Amsterdam to dismiss it as a failure, though the clunky missteps make it difficult to embrace as a true success. It’s a self-indigent hodgepodge that is unable to make for a fully satisfying whole, and yet the sum of its parts is far too delicious to ignore. It’s tempting to let Amsterdam squeak by with a passing grade, though the muddled plotting and awkward story structure is perhaps most accurately described by giving it an “incomplete.” –Patrick Gibbs
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