‘Amsterdam’ Review: “Featherweight Romp Remains Watchable”
How does one even describe the odd place Amsterdam has in the pop culture landscape? Hollywood certainly wants you to think it’s a big A-list star-studded extravaganza that rarely gets released anymore. The Taylor Swift fandom likely is celebrating their subject of adoration getting another showcase on the silver screen. For those plugged into the ins and outs of filmmaking, it may serve as a grim reminder that people like writer-director David O. Russell who have committed various acts of misconduct on and off set still get to direct big-budget motion pictures. Nonetheless, underneath it all, Amsterdam is simply a movie, and one that gets by on being mostly agreeable throughout.
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Wrapped in the warm glow of Emmanuel Lubezki’s always-super cinematography, Amsterdam operates with an odd sort of whimsy. After saving each in World War I, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) are in turn saved by nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three start a life together as best friends in the titular Amsterdam. Eventually, life gets in the way, and Berendsen and Woodsman start their own medical and legal practices, respectively, in New York City while Valerie disappears. The three reunite when two back-to-back murders tug on personal connections for each of them, leading them into a ramshackle investigation that threatens to uncover a much deeper conspiracy. David O. Russell and his cast convey this complicated tale with a “gee-whiz” shrug that’ll either turn off audiences or delight them.
This writer lands somewhere in the middle. It’s a treat to see a score of actors often known mainly for prestige dramas do something in the vein of a screwball comedy. Christian Bale looks like he’s not putting his body through absolute hell for the first time in many films, and it translates to a soft-spoken performance that exudes likability. Washington is also good, the Berendsen/Woodsman friendship feels almost subtly romantic (bromantic?), and Margot Robbie is here to remind everyone why she’s a star. As an anchor for a movie, you could do worse than this central trio. Moreover, they act as a strong revolving door for a series of fun supporting performances. Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy’s socialites are a highlight, while Mike Myers and Alessandro Nivola get some good laughs in their brief screen time. The less said about Ms. Swift’s turn, the better.
The story is another affair entirely. Amsterdam wants to do a lot. It wants to be a breezy comedy, a romance, a drama about the power of friendship, and a thriller about the dangers of fascism. All of these are kind of messily thrown together in a storytelling manner that feels glib. There’s entirely too much going on at once, so much so that it feels more like O. Russell flexing rather than telling a story in a natural way. Furthermore, the jokes in the film don’t feel as much like a sturdy clue to connect the disparate parts as much as they do to earn an amused smirk from the audience which, I’ll confess, the film often succeeds at. The problem is that at times Amsterdam feels like its function is to mainline quirk to keep the audience invested. The cinematic equivalent of jingling keys in your face.
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Who’s going to pay attention to this tale of three friends if there isn’t a man with a glass eye that keeps popping out? Or a shock value death early on? We must give Margot Robbie a hobby of making art out of shrapnel so audiences know she’s “not like other women”! Don’t even get me started on some thoroughly unnecessary jumping around in time. This twee tone gives off a kind of self-consciousness about the material, which is unfortunate because there is something here. The characters and their performances are often delightful, and the reveals in the third act and its ties to real-life history feel incredibly relevant to the modern day. Somewhere there’s a middle ground between this movie’s shaggy nature and the unbearable try-hard energy of O. Russell’s American Hustle.
I’ll certainly say the movie is at its best exploring a senator (Robert De Niro) wrestling with his integrity or Berendsen learning to love himself in the face of an uncaring wife (Andrea Riseborough) than it is with all of its stylistic digressions. Still, Amsterdam will forever be an interesting case study. It’s a fun, diverting watch, yet also messy to a fault. It’s made by a monster but has a staggeringly ethical message. Mostly, though, Amsterdam is a fine movie that could’ve used more fine-tuning. A Hollywood tale as old as time. –James Preston Poole
Amsterdam is now in theaters.
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