When I watched the trailer of Amsterdam back in July, I could barely pay attention to the story thanks to the star-studded ensemble. It’s not to be dazzled by all the actors who signed up to do this David O. Russell’s movie, it’s starry even by his standards. Like Woody Allen (another white male director prone to controversies), big names just flock to his movies. Of course, stars don’t always guarantee a movie’s quality.
The opening promises that the story is inspired by true events… ‘A lot of this actually happened’ the title card says. Set in the early 1930s, it starts off with the corpse of a US senator whose suspicious murder is the central mystery. Burt and Harold, a doctor and a lawyer, somehow got involved as they attempt to get an autopsy performed on the senator. Soon they end up becoming suspects and become implicated in a horrific car accident. Christian Bale and John David Washington play the unlikely BFFs, bonded during WWI when both got shrapnel injuries.
As fate would have it, they meet a beautiful artist-turned-nurse, Valerie (Margot Robbie), and the three form a trio who promise to love and protect each other no matter what. Now, it’s not that I’m cynical about the wholesomeness and amiable nature of their friendship, it just doesn’t quite ring true. Neither is the romance between Harold and Valerie which lacks a certain warmth, let alone heat despite both being ridiculously good-looking.
The script, also written by O. Russell has the comedic whodunit vibe a la Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and to a certain extent, Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot movies. It’s an enjoyable genre when done well and there are certainly no shortage of talents to bring this murder mystery to life. Yet, O. Russell makes the plot so overly convoluted it practically sucks the fun out of the whole thing. The real political conspiracy is pretty obscure that one would likely have to Google it afterward.
The three leads make their darnest effort to make me believe they’re the best of friends. They sing, dance, and laugh together… the scene of them singing a French song is quite charming. Bale is quite amusing in a comedic role, and he’s so adept at acting with his entire body as he’s practically hunched over the entire movie due to Burt’s war injury. Robbie is enchanting as ever and Washington gives a confident performance here though he still hasn’t wowed me since Tenet.
In their journey to try to clear their name and uncover one of the most outrageous plots in American history, the trio encounters a bunch of characters played by a slew of recognizable faces. Some are crucial to the plot (Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Robert De Niro), some are relegated to play stock characters like corrupt cops or useless detectives (Timothy Olyphant, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola), and some are practically wasted in unpleasant roles (Anya Taylor-Joy, Andrea Riseborough). Chris Rock and Taylor Swift’s roles are basically glorified cameos. De Niro looks bored the whole time and towards the end, it’s as if he were simply reading his lines through a teleprompter.
The best thing about this movie is undoubtedly its cinematography by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki. The film looks luminous and all the actors never look more beautiful. Robbie and Saldana in particular look especially breathtaking.
The thing with having too many stars is that it can be quite distracting, and that’s definitely the case here. O. Russell’s movies are often eccentric, so I kind of expect that, but somehow the comic whimsy doesn’t always gel and comes out pretty awkward. The most cringe-worthy of all has got to be the monologue about love and kindness which seems to come out of nowhere and sounds so trite coming from a director known for his violent on-set outburst.
At 2 hour 14 minutes it’s just too long and overly indulgent that it keeps stumbling and flopping toward its discombobulating conclusion. The best thing about the finale is that the movie would finally end. This is O. Russell’s first feature since JOY seven years ago, which also got middling reviews. Perhaps he should start honing his storytelling craft instead of just collecting big stars to be in his movie. At the end of the day, it’s the story that ought to be the star of the movie.
Have you seen AMSTERDAM? I’d love to hear what you think!