Amsterdam (Movie Review): A Total Mess of a Mystery
Despite the best efforts of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington in the lead roles, David O. Russell’s Amsterdam is bland and disappointing.
When I saw David O. Russell’s American Hustle in 2013, I absolutely loved it. The cast was stacked, including one of my favorite actresses in Jennifer Lawrence (fresh off her Academy Award win in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook), the costume design was exquisite, and it had a soundtrack that I constantly listened to during my freshman year of college. However, once I gave the film some rewatches on DVD, I questioned what exactly I liked about it. My guess is that the hype and magic of the young wide eyed first watch made me elevate American Hustle a little too much (even though it is not exactly bad).
I went into the theater on opening night looking to objectively put aside O. Russell’s numerous controversies and review Amsterdam for what it was. No matter how despicable O. Russell’s reported actions are, I would not be particularly good at doing my job as a critic if I could not look at his latest offering exclusively for its quality as a film. The unfortunate fact is that, despite a star-studded cast and my hope that it would be decent enough, Amsterdam turns out to be a mess of epic proportions incredibly early on, and never recovers.
Amsterdam centers on a trio of World War I veteran friends: a doctor named Bert Berendsen (Christian Bale), a nurse named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), and a lawyer named Harold Woodsman (John David Washington). These friends become prime suspects in a murder case in 1933 and are thrust into a bigger mystery than any of them could have imagined on a quest to clear their names.
This is not one of the worst movies ever made mainly because the performances of Bale, Robbie, and Washington elevate the material. Bert and Valerie are quite eccentric, with Christian Bale and Margot Robbie bringing them to life in a way that frankly only they can. Washington gets a few comedic one liners as Harold but is more serious than the other two leads. All three have unique quirks and arcs that are intertwined with each other. The actors sell you on these characters and their friendship so much that you do want to root for them.
Even when things get boring and ridiculous in Amsterdam, Bert, Valerie, and Harold are worth sticking it out for. Washington and Robbie clearly have chemistry that brews through their characters romantic arc. Valerie and Harold’s romance caught me off guard at first, but they grew on me with their subtle, sweet love for each other during this insane mystery. Meanwhile, Bert is the annoyed and charming third wheel who is loved just as much by his friends. That dynamic may not be anything new, but the chemistry that Bale, Robbie, and Washington have with each other, along with the mystery element, make it different from anything you have seen before.
One other positive is the production design, which, along with the costume design, makes things vibrant and fascinating to look at. Much like American Hustle managed to transport audiences back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, Amsterdam makes you believe its set in the 1930s. The outfits worn absolutely pop on every member of the cast, and each location feels quite real, simple, and bright.
Here is the first problem with Amsterdam: the trailers are straight up lying to you. This mystery is not a straightforward Whodunit mystery, it is more of a thriller mystery, which are not the same thing. While some elements of a Whodunit are there, the plot unfolds a larger mystery that goes far behind the traditional “who killed this person” idea of a Whodunit. Tom George’s See How They Run is much more in the vein of a traditional Whodunit, while the story that O. Russell tells in Amsterdam has more in common with American Hustle. Both Amsterdam and American Hustle tell the story of something larger and share the “some of this actually happened” element.
I have no idea why the film was marketed this way, because in all honesty it only makes Amsterdam worse by having audiences go in expecting one thing and not really getting that. It also does not help that O. Russell’s mystery, despite taking influences from real life elements, is not particularly compelling and is a real slog to sit through. There is the murder mystery thriller aspect, the zany comedy, the fact that everything is built around Bert, Valerie, and Harold, and then finally there is a history lesson thrown in for good measure.
This mishmash of pieces does not fit together at all, and it causes any positive intentions O. Russell had with Amsterdam to be thrown by the wayside as the finished product is a film that will make audiences struggle to stay in their seats. There are celebrity cameos who are only there to deliver exposition, such as Chris Rock as Milton King, a fellow veteran who served with Bert and Harold, and it happens far too often, as if O. Russell forgot the old saying “show, don’t tell”. In all honesty, it felt like I was listening to some sort of presentation or lecture rather than watching a film, one that rarely interested me at all.
The comedy should have provided some relief from the constant way information was being thrown at me to move the plot forward, but it falls mostly short. Bale, Robbie, and Washington have a few funny moments and quips, but the funniest moment of the film comes when Taylor Swift makes a cameo as Elizabeth “Liz” Meekins, the daughter of the murdered senator at the center of the plot. Swift, much like she did with her role in Cats (2019), is convincing in her attempting to make something out of this nothing character. Unfortunately for her, the few scenes that Liz has are surely destined to become a meme among Swifties and non-fans alike. The way the character is written, combined with O. Russell’s lack of direction given to Swift, result in a sequence that should not be hilarious becoming something that made me burst into laughter.
What makes Amsterdam compelling, and does provide a relief from the hectic mystery that is thrown at you, is the three leads. Every part focused on Bert, Valerie, and Harold and their arcs is satisfying to watch. You will love learning about these characters and their relationship with each other. Seeing them together is a delight and their individual arcs that are technically tied to the mystery wind up being more satisfying than the resolution to the mystery. If only O. Russell had focused in on them rather than throwing constant exposition dumps at the audience to make the history lesson have more impact. Speaking of that history lesson, the film tries so hard to have something to say about so many different things and it does not have a clear vision about how to say them. Which is exactly why we get exposed to an overwhelming amount of exposition so that it feels like Amsterdam is teaching us something while it drags the plot along.
In the end, the resolution to the murder mystery in Amsterdam is so blatantly obvious that you will feel stupid for not figuring it out, unless you are like me and call it the minute the eventual culprit appears on screen. If you call it, you had better hope that you enjoy Bert, Valerie, and Harold, along with the production and costume design as much as I did, otherwise you are in for one of the most boring filmgoing experiences of the year.
Amsterdam attempts to be something meaningful, and mostly fails due to David O. Russell’s writing and direction. The comedy falls well short, leaving the lead trio of Bale, Robbie, and Washington as one of the only things that can help maintain your interest. The exposition fest can become exhausting and the resolution to the mystery is not even all that great. This film misses the mark so often, but at least the leads salvage as much as they can, along with some other elements that keep it from being among the worst films ever made.
Amsterdam was released globally in theaters on October 7, 2022.