At one point in Amsterdam, there is a scene involving (deep breath) Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington. Remi Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola. Perhaps the single most stacked-with-talent scene in 2022, it points to one of the problems with David O. Russell’s sprawling, intermittently enjoyable film: it is simultaneously over-stuffed and under-nourished. It proffers ambitious filmmaking, full of strong craft, great bits and big thematic swings but Amsterdam never really catches fire and fails to amount to more than the sum of its occasionally impressive parts.
Amsterdam opens with the title card: ‘A lot of this really happened’, mostly referring to a little-known dark chapter of US history — an elaborate political coup conspiracy — that emerges in the film’s second half. Before it gets to that, Russell’s script is a mash-up of different sub-genres — crime flick, Hawksian screwball comedy, two-guys-and-a-girl movie — that never finds the right tenor to unify its whackier and more sober elements. It’s at its most fun when, in a lengthy flashback, it etches the friendship between doctor Burt (Christian Bale), lawyer Harold (John David Washington) and nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie), evoking a freewheeling, capricious Jules Et Jim vibe.
Neither serious enough to be sharp satire, nor energetic enough to deliver exuberant farce.
This idealistic, sweet quality ultimately can’t survive in an over-complicated murder plot that blows up into something bigger. Russell wants to use it to make comments about contemporary America (clue: standing up to fascists) but it’s neither serious enough to be sharp satire, nor energetic enough to deliver exuberant farce.
The central trio are winningly played, if thinly drawn, Bale and Robbie’s characters boasting an over-abundance of quirks (him: a false eye that keeps falling out, a penchant for experimenting with meds; her: pipe-smoking, making sculpture out of shrapnel) whereas Washington is somewhat flavourless by comparison. The supporting cast, from Malek and Taylor-Joy’s social-climbers to Myers and Shannon’s bird-watching spies, register without being especially memorable. Taylor Swift gets an instantly meme-able moment. It’s left to Russell regular De Niro, playing a comrade of the murdered General, to provide an anchor for the wayward proceedings.
The Russell film it most resembles is American Hustle, sharing its flamboyance and broad scope, not to mention great costumes — take a bow J.R. Hawbaker and the legendary Albert Wolsky. From production designer Judy Becker’s recreations of ‘30s New York to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous, fluid, sepia-tinged images, Amsterdam is a treat to look at. It is also a delight to listen to, Daniel Pemberton’s score adding lightness and much-needed urgency, mainly through woodwind action. It’s a shame, then, that such technical proficiency couldn’t align to better-judged storytelling. Amsterdam wants to celebrate love, humanity and kindness in the messy tapestry of life. It just needed more care and control in weaving the threads.