“You don’t get here without things starting a long time ago.”
Writer/director David O. Russell has remained largely quiet in the years following his previous effort, 2015’s semi-ethereal Joy. It’s a long stretch of silence for a director whose output has been consistent and his projects difficult to categorize. Very few filmmakers could give audiences the humorous intensity of Three Kings and then follow it up with the bizarre watchability of I Heart Huckabees. His success has at times been almost as mysterious as his films. Almost everyone agrees that Silver Linings Playbook earned every bit of acclaim that it got, but it’s hard to find anyone who genuinely liked American Hustle. I’m sure this varied history caused critics and cinephiles alike to hold their breath as the five-time Oscar nominee unleashes his new creation, the period comedy/mystery Amsterdam.
Amsterdam centers on three old friends, a doctor named Burt (Christian Bale), a lawyer named Harold (John David Washington), and a nurse named Valerie (Margot Robbie) who all meet during the turmoil of WWI and escape to Amsterdam where a deep friendship develops between them. Flash forward to the 1930s and the trio is reunited when they find themselves accidentally investigating the death of a prominent man (Ed Begley Jr., leading them down a path full of corruption and betrayal.
Since Russell’s screenplays have never been too concerned about conventional structure and plot points, there’s always been a sense that the filmmaker has always approached whatever story he was telling with a sense of liberation that always comes through. Amsterdam is a case where that kind of exuberance doesn’t equal a tight, cohesive film experience, despite having moments that do sparkle. The strength of the screenplay is there, but so is the weakness of the story. Burt, Harold, and Valerie spend most of Amsterdam hot on the trail of why the murder took place, finding themselves in an involving mystery that focuses on high-level conspiracies. However, the mystery falls apart between the second and third acts, lacking context and offering up slight clues. Russell uses humor to plug the story leaks, but the jokes are weak and no laugh is stronger than any of the ones seen in the movie’s trailer. The result is a somewhat unsatisfying tale, yet one that’s just intriguing enough for some to instantly recognize Russell’s attempt at something both telling and madcap.
Those going to see the movie this weekend may be puzzled as to why a movie called Amsterdam spends so little time in the famous city. The capital of the Netherlands is featured for just a few brief moments and offers nothing to the mechanics of the mystery. Still, its symbolism is apparent whenever Burt, Harold, and Valerie are together. For these three who made it through the horrors of WWI, the city was a refuge; a place where they each found a connection with one another that they never found among their own families and society in general. Every so often, one of the three will simply say “Amsterdam” aloud as a sort of code, a reminder of the bond between them that will see them through until the end of time. As the mystery clunks along and the laughs mainly fail, it’s the relationship the three share and the somewhat fanciful and mischievous (yet dark) adventure Russell sends them on that helps to salvage Amsterdam from its undeniable shortcomings.
Anyone else who watches Amsterdam will likewise have to admit that the three leads at the center of the film are the primary reasons for seeing it. Bale, Washington, and Robbie all have such natural, intoxicating chemistry that if the movie had been about nothing else except them, no one would have minded. The three actors are so in sync with the intricacies of their characters, that the bond shared between them can’t help but feel natural. Furthermore, each of them individually paints their characters as real people. The actors each wade through the script’s quirkiness perfectly and present three figures who are each soulful misfits in their own unique ways.
Surrounding the three is a roster of recognizable faces who all provide pieces to the central mystery and take full advantage of being able to play in Russell’s world. Among them are Taylor Swift as an heiress, Robert DeNiro as a politician, Zoe Saldana as a medical examiner, and Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy as a wealthy couple with ties that go far deeper than most people realize.
As I’ve already alluded to, Amsterdam isn’t without its problems. So far, the critical reaction to the film has been mixed and the word of mouth has not been the kind that any studio, producer, or filmmaker could want. Those following Russell’s work can hardly be surprised by this, however. The director’s filmography is loaded with titles that appear to be both unconventional and accessible but in actuality exist in their own special realm where they are neither. Amsterdam follows in that vein with the whimsical way it flows and the kind of mad hatter energy that Russell has become famous for. I have a sneaky suspicion that the film is already becoming the black sheep of the 2022 awards season because of what it’s lacking in comparison to its ambitions. But in true Russell fashion, I’m also sure it has already become somebody’s favorite movie of the year.