“What is happening here?” and “This is so strange” are two lines spoken by Christian Bale’s character Burt in director David O. Russell’s new film “Amsterdam”. They were also two of the thoughts constantly swirling around in my head while watching “Amsterdam”.
O. Russell (who also wrote the screenplay) took the mildly intriguing 1933 Business Plot (an attempt to overthrow FDR) and made it incredibly boring and artistically bizarre. “Amsterdam” doesn’t even feel like a legitimate movie. There’s no structure or arc. The pacing’s a mess (many shots and scenes go on agonizingly long). And the reliance on close-ups is just one of the film’s many distractions. “Amsterdam” is like an empty, unstoppable train that gets more and more out of control as it heads down the tracks.
O. Russell is known for showcasing star-studded ensembles, his actors delivering deep, fantastic (and on three occasions Oscar-winning) performances. Just look at his four prime, end of year releases from the early to mid-2010s: “The Fighter”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, “American Hustle” and “Joy”.
“Amsterdam” is O. Russell’s first film since 2015’s “Joy”. And that seven-year span allowed him (through film quality reputation, not personal reputation) to assemble his biggest cast yet. Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington lead the way as a doctor, nurse and lawyer, bonded by their joint WWI battle experiences. They talk amongst themselves A LOT, and also sometimes randomly break out into song and dance. It’s incredibly awkward.
You’ve also got Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Rami Malek, Taylor Swift and Robert De Niro. Each gives a career-low performance. Not only does it seem like they don’t care much about what they’re saying or doing, half the time it doesn’t even look like they know what’s going on.
Bale narrates the movie, but at one point Robbie and Washington start narrating. And then that ends. Why? And it feels as if much of the voice-over was added last minute in a desperate effort to help us understand/care what’s going on.
A very generic, unforgettable Drake & Giveon closing credits song seems like a fitting ending.
I met O. Russell at the 2016 Critics Choice Awards (when “Joy” and Lawrence were nominated) and congratulated him on the film and her performance (which I genuinely liked). He was immediately apologetic. [“Joy” didn’t receive as many nominations or quite the universal acclaim of his three previous films.]
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll come back with a better one.”
Well, unfortunately, “Amsterdam” isn’t it.