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'Amsterdam' review: The stars do not shine

I did my best to like “Amsterdam.” There was not a single other movie this fall that I was more excited to see. Director David O. Russell’s films “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and “American Hustle” (2013) are among the first, if not the first, that come to mind when I think of the excellent kinds of true-to-life dramas and entertaining ensemble films that are no longer being made. But I couldn’t succeed in liking “Amsterdam,” his star-studded tragicomic adventure, which will recall “American Hustle,” only if you saw that film in the haze of a multitude of ill-advisedly mixed substances.  

What, precisely, is “Amsterdam” about? Even that simple question eluded me. We open under the narration of Burt Berendsen — Christian Bale in a New York Jewish accent — a doctor running a practice for American veterans of the First World War who have suffered from facial disfigurement (Berendsen himself lost his right eye). The first half-hour of the film is certainly its best, with some novel situations and fairly sharp character development, and there are only hints of the ineptitude of thematic exploration and basic filmmaking technique that plague the rest of the film. Berendsen is best mates with an attorney, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a successful black man in 1930s New York — and thus a source of belabored curiosity throughout the movie — who served with Burt in an integrated regiment in the Argonne Forest. Washington’s performance is nearly as flat as in “Tenet,” when his character’s name was The Protagonist. Nevertheless, their friendship is the most plausible relationship in a story which otherwise requires you not just to suspend, but to expel, your disbelief. 

After a muddled attempt to introduce the film’s real plot, which involves the suspicious death of the men’s former regiment leader, we are catapulted back in time to their war experiences, the relevance of which is not immediately apparent. Berendsen appears, a successful Park Avenue doctor who seems to be at the front because his in-laws want to get rid of him and is evidently the first white man to treat Woodman and his friends (including a character played by Chris Rock who elicits precisely zero laughs over the course of the movie) with dignity and respect. Their pact is strengthened by horrific suffering in battle — there are no war scenes in the film, but the level of gore in the medical tent is gruesome and gratuitous — and they soon add a third to their powerful friendship, a nurse named Valerie (Margot Robbie) who patches them up with éclat while briefly mangling a French accent before it is revealed, mercifully, that her character is not actually French, but an American in disguise. Woodman and Valerie quickly fall in love, and the three hightail it to Amsterdam, so that, apparently, Berendsen can get a glass eye (“dark hazel green”) and they can live in a studio together where they sing nonsensical songs and Valerie makes art that would leave even Gertrude Stein scratching her head. This is their moment of shared bliss, with the war finally over, ignorant of future hardship.  Russell wants for this to be the emotional heart of the film — the place and time in these characters’ lives when they loved life — but, unfortunately, he only gives us five or so minutes of it before the happy times end abruptly and we are jolted back to the 1930s with the Depression in full force and war on the horizon. We’ll always have Paris, but instead, it’s Amsterdam. Whoop-de-do.  

Just how did this movie go wrong, when it has as great a cast as can be gathered? "Amsterdam” boasts some of the worst performances by some of the best actors alive today, but it’s hard to blame them, and I do not believe their poor performances to be even primarily their fault. For one thing, “Amsterdam” desperately wants to be a continuation of the genre of true-crime comedic films that have been so popular in recent years, the greatest exponent of which was, arguably, “American Hustle.” But it has quite obviously missed the boat on this and is left looking like a behind-the-times straggler. Starting with a title card that says, “A lot of this really happened,” and flashing yellow-text titles to introduce certain characters in freeze frames, the movie is replete with overdue tropes that practically caused me to grimace in the theater. Russell may have started the success of this vague genre with “American Hustle,” but with “Amsterdam,” he has buried it.  

Another fault is that Russell is so in love with his characters and story (the script is his solo effort in addition to directing) that the film as a whole is sorely lacking in exacting editorial diligence. Certain moments are mouth-puckeringly maudlin and entire scenes are simply confusing in their execution. Lines will initially appear to be benign and saccharine aphorisms, such as the refrain “you choose someone or you need someone,” a shared phrase which is supposed to underpin the perplexing romance between Bale and Andrea Riseborough’s character, but eventually I was just left with the plain realization that, as sweet as that sounds, it is so platitudinous that it doesn’t even mean anything.  

The script is plotted so ploddingly that the film is alternately mundane and absurdly action-packed. The development of the plot is such that when scenes begin it is entirely obvious that all that will be relevant in the ensuing dialogue are two words, a first and a last name (Paul Canterbury! Tom Voze! Gil Dillenbeck!) which will then lead to another scene in which we learn another name, and so on until, presumably, one or more of those names turn out to be the baddies in the film. There is a grand legacy of this style of screenwriting being excellent (in Hitchcock thrillers like “North by Northwest” and classic journalism films like “All the President’s Men,” for instance) but "Amsterdam” is hardly a work of literary merit, and feels so far from the elating and beguiling feeling of natural discovery that permeated those brilliantly written films.  

There were many groan-worthy lines. I couldn’t wrap my head around Rami Malek’s character, Tom Voze, calling Ed Begley Jr.’s character, Bill Meekins, a “graham cracker of a man.” Is that an attempt at humor? 1930s poetry? An elaborate metaphor in which Bale and Washington— the soldiers who depended on him for stability—are the melted chocolate and marshmallow? How deeply was I supposed to consider this line? Was it supposed to distract me from the chaotic convergence of characters and disparate plot elements in the scene? When Leia called Han a “scruffy-looking nerf herder” I immediately got why he was so affronted. There was no lingering puzzlement to prevent me from turning my attention to Darth Vader, as he marched into the Rebel base on Hoth. Indeed, Malek’s character was one of the more appallingly laughable — essentially the equally twisted younger brother of his “No Time to Die” villain —who is also supposed to be Margot Robbie’s brother, whom he resembles about as much as, well, a graham cracker. Like so many of the other superb actors in the movie, his performance is suffocated by implausibility. 

There’s not even anything Christian Bale, who, extraordinarily, is simply fine, can do to rescue the film, and whether his screen partner is Robert De Niro or Taylor Swift (because, good grief, both are in the film) it is beyond his powers to save. Taylor Swift pops up at the movie’s beginning, a femme who’s fatale only to herself, surviving only to sing a brief ditty, order a cheesecake at a diner and be swiftly pushed under a truck. Robert De Niro appears much later, with an appropriate buildup that caused me to get my hopes up that he would bring the film to a relatively smooth landing or at least knock some sense into it with a one-two Jake LaMotta punch. Those hopes were dashed, unfortunately. At a speech, an attempt is made on the life of Robert De Niro’s character, a prominent general named Gil Dillenbeck. The gunman’s shot misses, instead hitting a glass of water on Dillenbeck’s lectern. Dillenbeck doesn’t even glance over to react: “Whoever shot that is a coward,” he says. I laughed aloud. All I could presume was that after being shot in the face on live television in “Joker” (2019), De Niro now has a sixth sense about these sorts of situations.  

I take no pleasure in coming away so unsatisfied from this film. I honestly believe that there is enough in “Amsterdam” to make a compelling, funny, and heartwarming movie. There are flashes of that potential throughout. But what was made is a total mess. And it’s harder to defend Russell’s well-documented psychotic behavior on sets when the result of his demands is a failure, but that’s a conversation for another day. 

David O. Russell has said that he likes for his films to be about outsiders, and his characters in “Amsterdam,” even though lost in a sea of cinematic chaos as they are, are still mildly endearing for this fact. I just hoped that I would actually love them, like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” or Christian Bale in “American Hustle.” And still, even with how disappointed I was by this film, it is quite heartening to see stars assemble in these numbers for purposes other than Avenging. The abysmal box office performance of “Amsterdam” will make it harder for original studio films with great casts to be made. So even though “Amsterdam” is a failure, it had admirable ambition and a pluckily original story, and if that is what is being set out for, I’m prepared to sit through more failures like it until someone (whether that will be David O. Russell remains to be seen) succeeds in making one of these kinds of movies again. 

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