A great cast and an acclaimed director are no guarantee of a good movie. Anything can be a misfire if things don’t click just right, regardless of the amount of talent in front of/behind the camera. This has certainly been proven many times over the 120+ years of the cinema. It has now been proven once again by the comedy/mystery/thriller Amsterdam.
There is no other way to say it besides it is a total mess. It isn’t an entertaining one either; it is that most deadly of things: a boring mess. The characters are dull, the plotting has no urgency or suspense, the pacing is way too slow for the tone, which tries for offbeat humor, and the jokes are forced and largely unfunny. The only moments that work come from the efforts of the incredible cast, but they are stranded in a screenplay that fails as comedy, mystery, history lesson and social statement.
When the trailer for Amsterdam was first released, it seemed a very likely candidate to be mentioned frequently during Oscar season. Now that it has come out, it will be a surprise if people are still talking about it in a week, never mind in a few months.
Burt and Harold met as soldiers in France during WWI. After getting wounded in action, they both came to New York, where Burt is a doctor and Harold is a lawyer. Upon being hired by a wealthy socialite to investigate her father’s suspicious death, the two men become embroiled in a massive conspiracy that is way less intriguing than this synopsis is making it sound.
Burt is played by Christian Bale, an actor who has a hard time not being interesting. He was even able to craft a legitimately affecting dramatic character amid the ridiculousness of Thor: Love and Thunder! Here, he has a fake eye, a bad back and an exaggerated speaking style, yet no substance to work with. He is a bunch of quirks that never feels like a real person.
Harold is played by John David Washington, who can be good with good material (see Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman). While Bale has every quirk, he is merely a nice, smart guy, who gets to spout awkward exposition, stay calm in the face of racism and smile at the third member of their team.
That would be Valerie, the nurse who saved their lives, played by Margot Robbie. She does what she can with a role that trivializes her, turning her into a lovable kook when early scenes show that Valerie can be equally as valuable as the two men. She gives the most enjoyable performance, but that isn’t as high praise as it should be.
The supporting cast includes Rami Malek as Valerie’s brother, Anya Taylor-Joy as his wife, Robert De Niro as a decorated general, Chris Rock as a friend from Burt and Harold’s regiment, Zoe Saldaña as a potential love interest for Burt, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as detectives, Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as spies, Timothy Olyphant as a hired killer and Taylor Swift as the previously referenced socialite. Combined, the cast has received seventeen Oscar nominations and four wins. Then add in the five nominations writer/director David O. Russell has gotten (three for directing, two for writing) and the expectations grow ever higher.
Unfortunately, Russell’s control of tone and pacing are completely missing here and there is no sense that he truly connected with New York in the 1930s. The frantic screwball comedy is oddly drawn-out and poorly timed, zapping it of all the energy it would have needed to actually be funny. The mystery is muddled and never feels like it is going anywhere. There is a lot about how soldiers are forgotten when they return home and the racism black soldiers were faced with during and after their service, though Russell just lets that stuff sit there without doing much with it.
It is easy to see how this concept, with this cast, could make for a really entertaining farcical mystery based loosely on true events. Sadly, everything is at least slightly off right from the opening scene. Nothing quite works in Amsterdam (127 minutes, not including the end credits), showing that when talented people misfire, they miss big.
1½ out of 5
Christian Bale as Burt Berendsen
Margot Robbie as Valerie Voze
John David Washington as Harold Woodman
Rami Malek as Tom Voze
Anya Taylor-Joy as Libby Voze
Robert De Niro as General Gil Dillenbeck
Chris Rock as Milton King
Mike Myers as Paul Canterbury
Michael Shannon as Henry Norcross
Andrea Riseborough as Beatrice Vandenheuvel
Zoe Saldaña as Irma St. Clair
Matthias Schoenaerts as Detective Getweiler
Alessandro Nivola as Detective Hiltz
Timothy Olyphant as Taron Milfax
Taylor Swift as Liz Meekins
Written and Directed by David O. Russell