Amsterdam (Review) – A Starry Mystery That Isn’t Worth Solving

DIRECTOR: David O. Russell

CAST: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Ed Begley Jr., Casey Biggs, Dey Young, Beth Grant

RUNNING TIME: 134 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: In the 1930s, three friends (Bale, Robbie and Washington) find themselves in the middle of a murder plot…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Like a feared spectre in an old wives’ tale, mention David O. Russell’s name on Twitter and you will find yourself haunted for eternity – but not necessarily by the spectre itself. Sure, his reputation as a pretty volatile filmmaker is well-known by this point (just ask George Clooney, or Lily Tomlin), but his now-famous screaming matches with his actors, on top of some disturbing allegations regarding his transgender niece, have caused the majority of the online community to decide that he is not worth supporting, and neither is anyone who signs on to one of his films. Hence, his new movie Amsterdam arrives with muted buzz at best, despite one of the starriest casts of a movie this year, as well as some great technical talent behind the camera, and all because most people can’t remove the art from the artist.

Then again, maybe in this instance they go hand in hand, because Amsterdam is the kind of movie one makes when they have far too many ideas and, instead of just picking one or two, they throw all of them into the same machine, with nobody around to advise them otherwise. The result is a jumbled mess that is baffling in its execution, too unfocused and scattershot to say anything substantial, and wasting a lot of strong performers and crew members on material that needs at least a few more rewrites.

Amsterdam isn’t set in the Dutch capital – though it is significant in a different way entirely – but instead in 1930s New York, where lowly doctor Burt (Christian Bale), a war veteran with a glass eye and a haircut reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and his lawyer friend Harold (John David Washington) are drawn into a situation involving the dead body of their former commanding officer, whose daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) suspects was murdered. Soon, another death forces Burt and Harold to clear their names when they are accused of murder, and on their journey they reunite with a woman named Valerie (Margot Robbie) who, years, prior, they met when the men were wounded young soldiers and she was their nurse, with the three forming a lifelong pact during their time spent together in – you guessed it – Amsterdam. In the present, the three friends soon discover that they have gotten themselves into a much bigger conspiracy, revolving around a retired general (Robert De Niro) who is being courted to lead an anti-democratic movement by mysterious forces.

The problem with Amsterdam is that O. Russell simply can’t make his mind up as to what kind of film he wants it to be – one moment, it’s a farcical romp; the next, it’s a murder-mystery thriller; then, it’s a political satire; following that, a romance; and it just keeps moving from one idea to the next with hardly any consistency to it. It is so unfocused that by the time it reaches that pivotal first-act break, you’ll be asking yourself the exact same question that Bale’s character himself asks during a voiceover: what in the actual hell is going on? The answer, it turns out, isn’t a whole lot, because it’s hardly the kind of mystery that keeps you guessing (who did it, and why, is pretty easy to pick up on), and for a nefarious plot that supposedly threatens all of democracy, the stakes could not feel lower, since there is hardly a sense of urgency amongst the characters to where you feel they are as invested as you are. There are some intriguing plot details buried somewhere in there, particularly ones that are inspired heavily by actual real-life events – hence the very O. Russell opening statement, “A lot of this actually happened” – but it doesn’t focus enough on them to feel like they’re the vital ingredients of this mixed-up assortment we’re watching on screen.

For whatever reason, O. Russell is unable to ignite the same drive and energy that has catapulted some of his more recent films to critical and awards glory, with his exposition-heavy dialogue feeling far too overwritten and even self-important, and his direction being noticeably stilted, resulting in some awkward line deliveries by his actors in camera shots that simply don’t look natural. There is an embarrassment of riches in this cast ensemble – beyond the names already mentioned, this movie also features Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, Chris Rock, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldaña, and even Mike Myers playing what looks to be the same character he played in Inglourious Basterds – and yet at least half of them are directed to be as dry and monotonous as the director wants them to be for some reason. Sometimes, when there are multiple people in one scene, they are shot as though they weren’t all on set at the same time, often talking to seemingly nothing off-camera with only the editing making it seem as though they actually are all communicating with each other. This can often be confusing, especially when characters you didn’t think were in a scene will just suddenly show up out of nowhere (there’s a scene late in the movie where it’s the main actors talking with each other, and then all of a sudden Chris Rock is there as though he was there the whole time), with not even cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s admittedly gorgeous visual palette being able to fully mask the odd staging.

Amsterdam is a confusing movie, not just because the plot is often complicated to follow, but because you never quite know exactly what O. Russell and his collaborators were trying to aim for. I noticed a lot of the problems in this film were also present in his previous film Joy, from some of the awkward performances to the disjointed and frustratingly low investment, but while that movie also wasn’t very good it was a lot more focused and certain about what kind of story it was trying to tell. This movie, though, is just an incoherent mess, one that wastes a lot of talented people on a vision that never feels fully formed, and what it does have to say is mostly comprised of stuff that’s been said in far more focused and acutely made movies.

You don’t have to like David O. Russell as a person, but sometimes you can appreciate his oddball style and handling of intriguing concepts. This, however, isn’t one of those times.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Amsterdam is a mostly incoherent mess that sees writer-director David O. Russell waste a talented ensemble cast and prolific crew members on a dry, flavourless mess that never knows what kind of movie it wants to be.

Amsterdam is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

Did you like this review? Want to know when the next one comes out?

Sign up to our e-mail service today, and get our latest reviews and previews sent straight to your inbox!

Search from over ten years of movies here:

Other recent reviews:

Sting (2024, dir. Kiah Roache-Turner)

A mysterious little spider soon grows to terrifying sizes…

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga (2024, dir. George Miller)

A young Furiosa attempts to make her way home in a post-apocalyptic wasteland…

The Garfield Movie (2024, dir. Mark Dindal)

The lazy cat Garfield comes face-to-face with his long-lost father…

The Strangers: Chapter 1 (2024, dir. Renny Harlin)

A couple find themselves tormented by masked intruders…

IF (2024, dir. John Krasinski)

A young girl develops the ability to see people’s imaginary friends…

Hoard (2024, dir. Luna Carmoon)

A troubled teen begins a dysfunctional relationship with an older man…

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024, dir. Wes Ball)

Many years after the reign of Caesar, an ape-ruled kingdom comes under threat…

The Fall Guy (2024, dir. David Leitch)

A Hollywood stuntman winds up on an epic misadventure during his latest gig…

Tarot (2024, dirs. Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg)

A group of teenagers find themselves haunted after messing with spiritual tarot cards…

The Idea of You (2024, dir. Michael Showalter)

A 40-year-old single mother begins a relationship with a much younger pop star…