David O. Russell’s first movie in seven years since Joy in 2015 boasts an all-star ensemble cast. And what a cast we have here. This includes familiar faces from Christian Bale to Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Anya-Taylor Joy, Taylor Swift and even Mike Myers, just to name a few.
Then, there’s the mix of genres, where Russell’s Amsterdam blends period murder mystery with quirky comedy and historical farce loosely inspired by a true story that “a lot of this really happened”. It all seems like a promising comeback for Russell, given his last two movies — American Hustle (2013) and Joy — were decent but unspectacular efforts, particularly when compared to his much-superior works in 2010’s The Fighter and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Well, I hate to say this but after having a tough time sitting through the 134-minute slog, Amsterdam marks a rare misfire for David O. Russell.
Russell, who also wrote his own screenplay, actually gets off to a promising start: The daughter (Taylor Swift) of a respected Army general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) enlisted the help of Dr Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and his lawyer friend, Harold Woodman (John David Washington) to perform an autopsy to find out the actual cause of his mysterious death. Soon, Burt and a nurse named Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldana) find out something is wrong with the general’s body during the autopsy. And from there, it gets worse when Burt and Harold find themselves becoming the prime suspects for the subsequent murder.
So far so good. But Russell doesn’t seem to bother making an intriguing murder mystery because what follows next is an extended flashback that takes us back from 1933 New York to 1918 Europe. We learn about how Burt and Harold first met during World War I in France, where both of them served in the army under the mixed-race 369th regiment of General Bill Meekins. The two ended up suffering from war injuries, where Burt particularly lost an eye and half his face.
This is where they met Valerie (Margot Robbie), a volunteer nurse who speaks fluent French and is also responsible for taking care of them in the hospital. The three of them become friends and they later spend some happy times together in Amsterdam. Burt gets a matching glass eye from Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers), who is actually an MI6 spy working for the British government. The movie also introduced Henry Norcross, who is also a spy but works for the US government. And if that’s not enough, more characters are piling up as the movie moves back to 1933 namely, Valerie’s wealthy mogul-brother named Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and Tom’s wife, Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy) as well as General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro).
No doubt that Russell tries to cover a lot of ground here with all the busy plots and subplots to the point the movie ends up in a heavy-handed mess. And it feels overlong, where the extended 1918 segment drags too much with a long-winded flashback that is meant to establish the friendship between Burt, Harold and Valerie. The thing is, I barely care about the so-called friendship between these three characters because they strangely lack chemistry. It doesn’t help either that the typically reliable Christian Bale, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter and received a Best Actor nomination for American Hustle, is largely a letdown as Burt Berendsen. He does, however, manage to pull off some worthwhile physical-comedy moments.
John David Washington’s blank-faced expression for most parts of the movie made me feel as if he is just going through the motion. Margot Robbie is at least looking enthusiastic in her lively turn as Valerie and as for the rest of the supporting cast, both Michael Shannon and Mike Myers barely leave much of a good impression in their respective spy characters as Henry Norcross and Paul Canterbury. The same also goes with Robert De Niro, who seems like he’s phoning it in his role as General Gil Dillenbeck.
The comedy parts, which are supposed to be Russell’s forte since his 1994 feature-length debut in Spanking the Monkey, turn out to be shockingly unfunny for the bulk of the movie’s running time. The comic timings mostly fall flat and so does whatever attempt on a broad satire that he tries to pull off here. By the time the movie concludes with a big political conspiracy and the eventual reveal of why the murders happened, it’s all too late.
Frankly, I still find it hard to believe that Amsterdam is actually the work of David O. Russell. It’s enormously tedious that no amount of a stacked cast and a wonderful period detail with all the old-school sepia tone can save this unfortunate train wreck of a movie.