Answering the question, “How many movie stars can one film squander?”, Amsterdam boasts a laundry list of illustrious actors and actresses and finds not a single productive or entertaining use for them. The first feature from David O. Russell since 2015’s Joy, this madcap period piece is part murder mystery, part anti-fascist conspiracy thriller, and all-around disaster, devoid of tone, wit, or any semblance of rhythm. It’s akin to a screwball comedy played at half-speed, its jokey barbs and grave line readings indistinguishable from each other and uniformly falling flat on their face.
Speaking of which, WWI vet Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) has a habit of losing consciousness and plummeting to the floor courtesy of the homemade pain medications he cooks up in his office for himself and his kindred disfigured-by-combat pals. Burt has one glass eye and a nasty scar below it which he masks with a prosthetic patch, as well as a back brace that helps support his thoroughly mangled torso. The scars of war have never been more leadenly literal, although less obvious is why, as this half-Jewish, half-Catholic physician, Bale affects a speech pattern modeled after Al Pacino. No matter—with frizzy hair that makes him appear to have just risen from bed, and a hunched posture that further underscores his caricatured nature, Burt is one of the wounded but resilient good guys, and he’s thrust into a 1933 adventure when he gets a call to perform an autopsy on Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), the military commander who led his battalion.
On this mission, Burt is joined by his long-time friend Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), whom he met during the war—and stood up for against racist compatriots—and who’s now a lawyer. Together, they’re hired by Meekins’ daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) to ascertain if Meekins fell victim to foul play on his sea voyage back from Europe. This compels them to seek the assistance of pathologist Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña), who tells Burt—who’s estranged from his wife Beatrice Vandenheuvel (Andrea Riseborough) due to her antisemitic parents—that true love is about choice rather than need. Such a corny maxim sticks out like a sore thumb, as do the many other love-related platitudes that pepper Russell’s script, which strives to pick up steam with an unexpected murder that puts Burt and Harold in the crosshairs of assassins and their shadowy employers, and forces them to reach out to New York City’s rich and powerful.
Amsterdam is at once stuffed to the gills and glacially paced, its every scene and performance too cartoonish to be dramatic and too serious to be zany. As a result, the film plods along straining to locate a proper pitch. It never does, instead simply bouncing around between various, equal points of non-interest. The main stop on its ramshackle journey is its title city, where—in a prolonged flashback to 1918—Burt and Harold set up residence with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a dashing nurse who makes art out of shrapnel (thereby transforming horror into beauty) and covertly works as some sort of spy for intelligence agents from the United States (Michael Shannon) and Great Britain (Mike Myers, doing a rehash of his Inglourious Basterds routine). The trio make a pact to always have each other’s backs, and they spend a brief blissful period together during which Valerie and Harold fall for each other. Before long, however, all three separate, in one of many plot developments that takes place for no reason other than that it does.
Back in 1933, Burt and Harold—on the run and desperate to clear their names—tangle with two dim cops (Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola) and visit wealthy magnate Tom Voze (Rami Malek), the brother of Valerie, whom they haven’t seen in over a decade, and who they’re shocked to learn has become a vague type of invalid. Tom is married to Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy), and both of them point Burt and Harold in the direction of revered General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), who Tom surmises might be able to help them figure out the culprit behind Meekins’ slaying. Additional frantic racing to and fro ensues, albeit in semi-slow-motion, with Russell’s roving camera moving about for movement’s sake, and consequently creating a misbegotten synergy between dissonant content and purposeless form.
The plot that Burt, Harold and Valerie uncover has to do with a tide of American fascism that’s rising in harmony with Hitler and Mussolini’s ascendant movements overseas. This allows Russell to fall back on “timeliness” as a reason for his film’s existence, as well as gives De Niro the opportunity to deliver a fictionalized version of an anti-Trump speech. Yet everything about the proceedings is so heart-on-its-liberal-sleeve ponderous that it’s hard to root for any of these heroes. It doesn’t help matters that the script’s secrets are straightforward, thus rendering the ceaseless convolutions so much frivolous nonsense, nor that every turn strikes a wrong note. From Bale’s creepy-gaunt earnestness and Nivola’s clumsy brutishness to Robbie’s tough-yet-wobbly determination, Washington’s blank-eyed nobility and Chris Rock’s one-note humor (as a character who repeatedly warns that Black people will be blamed for white people’s misdeeds), everyone seems unsure of the genre in which they’re operating, or how to liven up the sluggish material.
Amsterdam is loosely based on a true story, but Russell makes it neither farcical nor portentous. In the tale’s later passages, he resorts to hand-holding exposition, using Bale narration to spell out what is already explicitly evident—an apparent sign that even he’s uncertain about the film’s coherence. Moreover, he falls back on feel-good preaching about the values of democracy, the threats of domestic terrorism and authoritarianism, the brotherhood of man (no matter the color of one’s skin) and the peerless power of love, which, Burt helpfully tells us, is forever opposed by hate. Russell’s latest showcases so many capable participants that its incompetence is almost awe-inspiring, and quickly shifts one’s thoughts away from the plot’s helter-skelter specifics and toward the many mid-production warning signs that must have gone heeded. One thing is certain, though: Bale speaks for the audience when he expounds, “Holy shit, what fresh hell is this?”