“A lot of this really happened!” teases the opening card of David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, but truth be told, the question that audiences will likely have while watching this star-studded film is, “What the hell is happening?”.
Set in 1930s New York, Amsterdam starts out by introducing Christian Bale’s Burt Berendsen, a doctor experimenting on new pain treatments for wounded war veterans outside the medical establishment and his attorney buddy Harold Woodman (John David Washington). The two were brought together through years of serving in the same unit during the first World War in 1918, and emerged as friends for life, together with their nurse friend Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who also happens to be an eccentric artist with a zest for life.
The trio leave the Belgian hospital where they were stationed and moved to post-war Amsterdam, where they dance, make art, and create countless memories. Of course, all good things must come to an end and Burt finds himself back in Park Avenue, while Harold and Valerie’s romantic relationship seemed to disappear without a trace.
Their paths cross again years later, when Valerie recommends her old friends to a relative, Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift), whose father Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), as we learn through flashbacks, was also head of their Army unit in France. Elizabeth informs the duo that she suspects that her father was murdered, and requests an independent autopsy from Burt.
Unfortunately, Burt and Harold are then thrust into the centre of a extremely complicated investigation following a startling incident out on the streets, and they go down a rabbit hole that ultimately reconnects them with Valerie who joins in the investigation, so that she can get away from her weird brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his controlling wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Amsterdam is without a doubt, star-studded and the ensemble film also has acting veteran Robert De Niro as General Gil Dillenbeck, a key character in putting the investigation to an end; Chris Rock as Milton King, a fellow veteran, and friend and colleague of Harold’s; Mike Myers as a Glass Entrepreneur; Zoe Saldana as Irma St. Clair, a pathologist, and many others.
Each actor is given adequate screen time, with their characters adding to the intrigue, mystery and comedy as the movie’s plot unfolds and explores topics such as friendship, the darkness and the desire for optimism that comes with war as well as race (with a hefty dash of Nazis!). Bale, Washington and Robbie are the main vehicles for a lesson on long-standing friendships but truth be told, are somewhat lacking in the chemistry that viewers expect to see from best friends who haven’t seen each other in over a decade.
Thankfully, Bale, Robbie and Washington are talented actors who play their individual roles to the best of their abilities, leaving audiences with several cute, wholesome and funny moments. We’d believe that they’re friends for sure, but likely not best friends who have trauma-bonded and eloped into a European daydream for a year or two, before needing to sever their friendships completely.
Taylor-Joy and Malek are a joy to watch as the odd and hard-to-know couple. They’re weird and yet viewers can’t seem to put a finger on why they are the way they are. There are no reasons for suspicion with regards to the investigation, but they muster enough intrigue and interest, especially for side characters. De Niro’s Dillenbeck is a surprising addition and given how he’s a character based on a real person – Major General Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine who was involved in several armed conflicts – he emulates the General’s speech quite well.
However, a decorated cast does not save Amsterdam from flaws.
Structurally and story-wise, the film is a mess as it jumps back and forth between the past and present abruptly, and switches its narrator between Burt, Harold and Valerie with no warning. In fact, one can easily miss the switches between Burt and Harold unless they’re really paying attention. This creates a sense of inconsistency and confusion as to what exactly director Russell is trying to achieve by randomly changing out the story’s narrator. The narration also springs at random moments, as if the movie can’t decide if it wants a director or not – let alone who should be the one to narrate it.
Amsterdam also drags out parts that weren’t that important whilst rushing through its climax. A big chunk of the movie is focused on the friendship our protagonists had back in Amsterdam, but all the reminiscing was pointless and unhelpful in progressing what was actually happening. Which brings us to the next point – what is actually going on?
Writer-director Russell attempts to make Amsterdam a satire dramedy by pulling parallels to a little-remembered episode in American history but overdoes it with a complicated plot. The movie’s opening card teases that Amsterdam is somewhat based on a true story – to which many might assume alludes to the primary tale of a corrupted doctor and an honest lawyer being framed for a murder they did not commit, but that is not the case. It wasn’t until the very tail end of the film when it is revealed that the speech Gillenbeck gave in the movie is actually inspired by the time Major General Smedley Butler exposed a fascist organisation at Newton Square in the 1930s.
Oh and the murder that the duo didn’t commit? That just went out the window as the story diverts to focus on a mysterious clinic and a secret organisation whose aims include corrupting America’s sweet democracy. The story is so messy and convoluted that audiences will likely find themselves questioning what the point of everything is.
Amsterdam is a ride, but is not a good one, and with 2 hours and 14 minutes in the movie’s runtime, it loses its point after an hour in. There are moments and scenes that are funny – like when Burt asks Dillenbeck’s wife what she calls her husband on the weekend, or when Robbie reacts and delivers lines as she would as Harley Quinn – but again, a good movie is more than witty lines here and there and it is definitely more than star-studded cast, no matter how talented they can be. Amsterdam has an ambitious idea that given proper writing and structure, could potentially be a much better and smarter original film.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Amsterdam is an ambitious and overstuffed satire film that will have viewers wondering “what the heck is happening?” (and not in a good way). No amount of star power can help elevate David O’ Russell’s latest film.
Story - 4/10
Direction - 4/10
Characterisation - 7/10
Geek Satisfaction - 5/10