For a film ostensibly about the power of kindness, David O. Russell’s Amsterdam sure is damn cruel to its audience. Running at a punishing two-plus hours with a star-studded yet sleepy cast of typically strong actors, it is a slog of epic proportions that utterly wastes the talents of all involved. Completely lacking in cleverness and without any sense of direction, it is a cinematic drought of entertainment that only has any intrigue in how baffling an artifact it remains. It may not be the worst movie of the year, but it is certainly the most annoying.
Establishing what it is actually about is both easy with regard to its simplistic themes and difficult due to just how unnecessarily convoluted it is. On a basic level, it is about how a murder in the 1930s is pinned on a group of friends who must work together to figure out what happened and clear their names. There is the eccentric doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), the exasperated lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington), and the troubled artist Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who all formed a close bond during wartime in, you guessed it, Amsterdam. Many years later, the group has split though Burt and Harold are trying to support those who also served after they sustained serious wounds. In the midst of this, they are approached by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) about the suspicious death of her father, General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), who was someone the two men respected. Liz wants them to bring her back the results of an autopsy to determine if there was foul play. For any fans hoping the musician’s character would have a more prominent role, she makes a swift exit that further complicates matters as a coverup starts to take shape.
What follows is a scattershot series of scenes that strive to be abundantly quirky though just come off as painfully obnoxious. Much of this comes down to the writing, which somehow manages to be both overwrought and undercooked, though it is also poorly constructed on a technical level. The many dialogue scenes where characters take part in banal and ongoing banter become an endurance test when edited so haphazardly. While the scenes were not funny to begin with, the manner in which they are stitched together strips away even the smallest hint of enjoyment. Characters will seem to change positions at random as if there was not even the most basic of camera coverage when it was shot. Many sequences seem as though the cast may not have always shared a room together as their eyelines don’t match up and the pacing gets spliced to all hell. By the time it feels like it may settle down, there will be an inexplicable series of cuts that completely take you out of the scene. It makes every repetitive and dragged-out sequence of conversation that much worse to endure.
That all of this is very loosely based on some actual events that stand out from history, as Russell has done many times before in his career, ends up feeling like a missed opportunity when told so poorly. It seeks to play out as a fable about creeping fascism, a subject that is both urgent and enduring, only with the most superficial of approaches. The priority of every single scene is schtick which is never funny, despite how self-impressed it is with itself, and completely pushes any more incisive observations to the side. In more competent hands, this juxtaposition between being more whimsical and weighty could work as each would bring the other into greater clarity. In Amsterdam, everything is assembled with an air of anachronistic absurdity and becomes maddeningly muddled. There is never a moment of respite as characters just keep rambling through scene after scene without any sense of purpose to it.
It frustratingly relies on flashbacks within flashbacks and a dearth of narration in a desperate attempt to hold together that ultimately falls apart. Perhaps if it had taken the plunge fully into the absurdity there could have been something to cling to. Instead, the film fumbles its way through every moment as it tries to fast talk over the top of everything taking place in the hopes you won’t notice how all over the place it is. It is oddly plot-driven as the characters keep having to go to a place to talk to a person, but shockingly little of consequence actually happens. As a result, there isn’t much that changes with the characters in terms of the journey they take. Making matters worse is how stiff everyone is as they speak in a way that borders on becoming a parody of itself. None of the cast comes out unscathed, no matter their best efforts, all caught in the crossfire of Russell’s lack of vision.
Throughout the laborious experience, the person who kept popping into my head who could have given it some life was Amy Adams. She had done so when she starred in Russell’s previous film American Hustle, a work that now seems like a masterpiece compared to this, and has an irreplaceable screen presence that is absent here. Where everyone else was floundering and one-note, Adams could have struck a better balance. Then one remembers that the director treated her so terribly in the past and you understand why no one would ever want to work with him. This is where I would be remiss to not discuss how Russell has had a long track record of allegations of abuse, both off-set and on, dating back decades. However much we like to “separate the art from the artist,” when the artist is driving away talented people then the art itself also begins to suffer. That is before we even get to the potentially self-serving nature of the story and how, with Russell’s history, it is increasingly hard to take seriously. Through the cacophony of narrative noise, the film tries to prop itself up as being an example of how the characters that exercise kindness are the best of who we all should be.
This is, to put it lightly, rather rich coming from a filmmaker like Russell. While his background has been somewhat overlooked in the press leading up to its release, there is something deeply discomforting about a film that champions treating others well when he is at the helm of it. That is where the film crosses from being poorly made to being incessantly insulting to its audience. What was already hollow in how little it seemed to care to actually craft a compelling cinematic experience turns downright dour. For all the ways the film dresses itself up as being insightful, the core of the experience just leaves a feeling of phoniness. Russell puts the story through all the motions, often relying on the star power of its leads to convince us of its sincerity, only for it to crumble to pieces when it really counts. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth as the house of cards of humility and heart falls apart when put under the slightest bit of scrutiny. What remains when Amsterdam grinds to a halting conclusion is a work of poor imitation, a cinematic con that fails to convince us it’s actually any good as a film or worth even a moment of time taken seriously.