For a period, David O. Russell was on a roll. With The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, he didn’t just make three Best Picture nominees in a row. He effortlessly navigated from sports biopic, to romantic comedy, to crime caper, demonstrating his range as a director. Even Joy, which many saw as a step backwards, I found delightful. Just when it seemed Russell could do no wrong, his behind-the-scenes behavior came into focus. The allegations surrounding Russell shouldn’t be brushed aside. Like Don’t Worry Darling, though, Amsterdam shouldn’t be judged based on its director’s drama. Films deserve to be reviewed on their own merits, and on that basis, Amsterdam is still a disappointment.
Remember in The Big Short where Christian Bale portrayed somebody with a glass eye? He plays another in Amsterdam, but he cranks the eccentricity up to Johnny Depp levels of “please nominate me for a Golden Globe.” Bale chews the scenery as Dr. Burt Berendsen, who spends his days making experimental drugs for veterans after losing his eye in World War I. During the war, Berendsen befriended Harold Woodsman, a lawyer played by John David Washington, and Valerie Voze, a nurse played by Margot Robbie. A few years after returning to the States, the three friends find themselves wrapped up in a senator’s murder. What starts as a whodunit snowballs into a conspiracy involving a coup to overthrow FDR.
Amsterdam asserts upfront that this story is only partially true. Where the main trio is largely grounded in fantasy, there is some truth to the central conspiracy, which draws from the Business Plot. Robert De Niro plays General Gil Dillenbeck, a fictionalized version of General Smedley Butler, who got caught in the middle of the real-life conspiracy. Historians still debate whether the Business Plot was a legitimate threat to democracy. Either way, there’s potential for a fascinating and timely movie about this subject. Amsterdam isn’t that movie. It’s several different movies that don’t quite conceal.
Amsterdam wants to be a murder mystery, a conspiracy caper, a buddy comedy, a war picture, an alternate history movie, and a commentary on political corruption. While its ambition is admirable, the execution isn’t especially fresh or fun. Most scenes consist of people sitting in a room, spouting exposition and occasionally something quirky. The characters don’t have much personality outside of their quirks, however. Berendsen has a glass eye, but that doesn’t give him a defined character. Valerie makes surreal art from the objects she pulls from soldiers, which isn’t explored as much as it should. The film’s success hinges on the chemistry between Bale, Robbie, and Washington. Although these are three great actors, their friendship never feels authentic. Just because you say these characters have an unbreakable bond doesn’t automatically earn the audience’s investment.
The cast is still exceptional with Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, and Zoe Saldaña all shining in supporting roles. Russell turns in a well-crafted film with atmospheric production design, elegant period costumes, and Oscar-quality makeup. Timothy Olyphant is so unrecognizable that I was legitimately shocked to see his name in the credits. On a storytelling level, though, Amsterdam isn’t as gripping as it wants to be or should be. The plot feels dragged out, not meeting its full potential until the third act, which delivers an energetic set piece. At just over two hours, however, it’s hard to recommend a film for the finale alone. If you’re in the mood for a murder mystery, you’re better off with See How They Run. Or maybe wait and see if Glass Onion lives up to the hype from TIFF.