“Oh my God, they’re in this movie too?”
Audiences will surely find themselves asking this question many times over the course of David O. Russell’s new murder-mystery film “Amsterdam.” But when not blinded by the combined lights of Margot Robbie, Christian Bale, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Taylor Swift, Anya Tayor-Joy, and more, viewers will quickly realize that they are watching a rather clumsy project. Abandoning the swaggering style of “American Hustle” and the understated beauty of “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell instead opts for a true-story crime caper with uneven humor and questionable logic.
Certain aspects of the film do lift it safely out of the realm of total disaster, the most noticeable being the rich production design. Ironically, most of “Amsterdam” takes place in 1930s New York City, a setting that provides ample opportunity for beautiful shots of the industrializing city’s crowded streets, the interiors of old-money establishments, and sundry antique cars. Paired with excellent period-specific costumes — especially Robbie’s striking golden dress in the final act — the film easily manages to delight the eyes of the audience from start to finish.
Surprisingly, the allure of “Amsterdam’”s aforementioned star-studded cast remains fresh and palpable throughout the film. Unlike Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” which did little to free itself of the inherently gimmicky nature of its star-studded cast, “Amsterdam” succeeds in making most of the high-profile additions to the story feel like integral parts of the plot instead of mere cameos. (Swifties be warned, however, as Taylor Swift is a notable exception to this statement, only given a brief opportunity at the film’s beginning to flout her genius).
Taylor-Joy is an unsurprising standout, capturing her character’s graceful petulance with ever-so-subtle humor and an undeniable allure. Watching this new star hold her own next to a great like Robert De Niro is more enjoyable than anything the film has to offer by way of its story. However, it is Christian Bale who does most of the heavy lifting in the film, serving as its nerdy, quick-witted protagonist Burt whose glass eye commands far too much screen time. While Bale does his damnedest to breathe some life into Russell’s unengaging and oddly didactic script, his admirable efforts are ultimately in vain, as the film provides audiences with very little reason to care about Burt’s outlandish exploits. Finding a way to misuse the talents of Bale (as well as Robbie) is quite a feat, but “Amsterdam” does just that, leaving viewers with the upsetting impression that these lead actors were mostly invested in collecting a paycheck.
Such an issue is largely the fault of the film’s remarkably sloppy plot. From the very first scene, “Amsterdam” struggles to establish its stakes, with it being rather unclear why the two mysterious murders that set the plot into motion are pertinent to the main characters. The film mostly ambles from location to location at the urging of the next major celebrity, trying to keep audiences engaged by constantly making vague references to the shocking, unthinkable evil forces behind all of the mayhem. By the time Bale and company uncover the eye roll-inducing truth, far too much of the movie has passed and the excitement of the final act feels truncated. Moreover, the film’s inability to outline the logic leading to this discovery means it has to rely heavily on a Scooby-Doo-esque explanation in the story’s final moments, an obvious indication of a poorly-written script.
The more glaring deficiency of the screenplay is its sugar-sweet moralizing that Russell decides to shoehorn throughout the film’s action. Robbie and Washington’s reflections on the poetic nature of love in the titular city are basic yet bearable, but Bale’s impossibly long soliloquy on the battle of “love versus hate” at the film’s conclusion comes dangerously close to sinking the whole enterprise. In a movie that audiences are led to believe is a murder mystery, Russell includes a misplaced reminder to love your neighbor that is heavy-handed enough to leave viewers with a concussion.
“Amsterdam” is not a great movie. For the most part, it feels like an off-brand Wes Anderson project that cannot decide exactly what it means to be. There is, however, some fun to be had in watching many of the superstars of modern Hollywood don pretty costumes and travel between even prettier sets. It simply would have been far more fun to witness such giants do these things within the context of a great story.