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Review: Amsterdam

October 4, 2022

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Amsterdam is the latest star-studded film from director David O. Russell, his first since Joy in 2015, which capped off an incredibly impressive run that included The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

The odds have been stacked against this film from the outset, both due to the weight of expectations and increasing scrutiny over the director’s personal life (it’s being released amidst heightened awareness of abuse allegations involving his past behaviour both on-set and off, but I’m going to keep this as a review of the movie, not the person).

And, yes, Amsterdam is an uneven effort that never fully clicks together as well as American Hustle, the film of Russell’s that it most closely resembles. But it’s also not without any merits or entertainment value. As someone who greatly enjoyed Russell’s style in the past (again, I’m talking about the films and not the filmmaker), I found Amsterdam to be a largely scattered mixed bag, but still a somewhat enjoyable one.

The film centres around Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a pair of World War I veterans living in New York City circa 1933, who have remained friends since the war. Burt is a doctor helping fellow vets with the aid of his own drug concoctions, and Harold is a lawyer. In the opening scenes, Burt gets asked by a young woman (Taylor Swift) to perform an autopsy on her father, a powerful military commander whose death seems suspicious.

The two end up getting framed for murder, putting them on the run. At this point, Amsterdam flashes back to 1918 when Burt and Harold first met while serving together over in Europe, and formed a bond with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a quirky young nurse who moonlights as an artist making sculptures with bits of shrapnel that she pulls out of her patients. This leads to a prolonged sequence in Amsterdam that gives the film its title.

The film is filled with Russell’s usual stylistic touches. Bale’s character offers voiceover narration to introduce characters and highlight key plot points, while Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera spins around and provides the fluid Steadicam shots that have become characteristic of Russell’s work. But Amsterdam also tries to be a few too many things at once, playing out at times as an airy caper and other times as a darker noir. The director often struggles to nail the right balance between comedy and seriousness, and he never quite handles the genre shifts as nimbly as he did in his previous work.

The film also runs long at 134 minutes, and the various storylines and characters can get messy. The central mystery gets pretty hazy at times, but it all ties into a larger conspiracy revolving around New York society in the 1930s, a post-WWI but pre-WWII period that presented a facade of stability hiding the darkness brewing with the rise of fascism in Europe. It’s a film that has a lot on its mind, and while the messaging of Russell’s screenplay certainly could have been sharpened (particularly in regards to its handling of racial tensions and antisemitism), I did enjoy a lot of what the film is trying to say and I found myself mostly engaged throughout.

If at times they seem to be acting in different movies, the film’s stacked cast (which also includes Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, Andrea Riseborough, Zoe Saldana, and Robert De Niro) is its main selling point. Bale has fun playing quirky, while Robbie shows off some physical comedy skills. Swift only has a few scenes, but she is good, understanding the assignment of acting as the grieving daughter in an old melodrama. De Niro plays a retired general who has become a populist leader for the veterans’ cause, and he comes into the movie and does what he needs to do, including delivering a big monologue.

This is a flawed effort, to be sure, and one that will be written off by many, but I didn’t hate it. It is Russell’s weakest film overall (not counting the absolute mess that was Accidental Love, which the director disavowed and left unfinished before it was cobbled together by the studio and released under the pseudonym Stephen Greene), but I think Amsterdam still has enough entertaining elements to make it mildly worth checking out if you have enjoyed his previous work.

Amsterdam is opening exclusively in theatres on October 7th.

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