It’s been seven long years since writer/director David O. Russell made a movie. He was prolific from 2010-2015, making four movies, which were nominated for a slew of Oscars, especially in multiple acting categories. Three were also nominated for Best Picture and Russell was nominated for Best Director three times as well. It was quite a vaunted run of mainstream and critical success, with devoted actors like Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence eager to sign up for Russell’s quirky ensembles (it helps when both won Oscars playing Russell roles).
It’s natural to want to take some time off after such a busy creative period, but as the years stretched on, and after the Me Too accountability movement, Russell’s on and off-set behavior gathered more scrutiny and rebuke. His volatility had been known, like his screaming fit he had on the 2004 I Heart Huckabees set with Lily Tomlin. Even George Clooney recounts stepping up to Russell’s bully behavior on the set of 1999’s Three Kings (rumor has it Clooney was the one who released the Huckabees footage). On 2013’s American Hustle, Amy Adams said she cried repeatedly from Russell’s bullying and felt intimidated and isolated. Then there were the renewed revelations from Russell’s own niece who had been transitioning and accused Russell of inappropriate touching when it came to her changing body. Russell even admits to this, though he defends his actions by saying he was given tacit permission, or so he says. With all of this controversy and harassment swirling around Russell, it’s a wonder who would want to continue working with this kind of person. I guess as long as he was producing at his peak level, studio execs would excuse his bad behavior and keep funding his ballooning budgets. Well Amsterdam might just be the end of Russell’s star-studded big studio ride.
In 1933 New York, Burt Berendsen (Bale) is a WW1 veteran making ends meet as a doctor who specializes in veteran care. He and his best friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington) are framed for a murder and on the run, and the only way to clear their good names is to uncover a conspiracy that leads to a possible government coup. Helping the fellas out is Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse who makes art from the shrapnel she recovers from inside war vets, and a wealthy socialite who also happens to be in love with Harold. Together, the three friends bumble their way through danger and mystery and crazy mishaps.
This is a mess of a movie, a waste of its top talent, and an excess of Russell’s excesses. The director has established a certain style since 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, a movie I still to this day genuinely love (it was my top movie for that year). It’s a style that communicates mania, a nervous energy, and it made sense for Silver Linings Playbook as the movie was following a bipolar protagonist given to uncompromising bouts of mania. It makes less sense with each additional movie, but this improv-heavy, experimental, loose sensibility has become the default style for the director, and it feels misapplied. It leads to Russell bombarding his actors with questions or different requests in the moment, keeping them guessing, and actors have gone forward saying they never knew what they were shooting on the day and the shooting never stopped. This indulgence leads to stories that feel like a lot of elements are sloppily thrown together with the undying hope that somehow it will all come together in the end. With Amsterdam, it doesn’t.
It’s not a great sign when I can say that the entire first hour could be jettisoned. There’s little sense of urgency for far too long, and what is presented feels almost comically unrelated, like even Russell can’t believe his silly characters are in real danger. The uneven pacing creates many dead spaces that feel like an awkward improv detour that you wish could have been avoided. We’re introduced to Bert as a drug addict, and then as a World War One veteran helping other veterans with facial scars and wounds, Bert’s relationship with his pal Harold, then their history in France during the war, then their introduction to Valerie and their kinship, then we have a mysterious death that also leads to a secondary love interest, which requires more setting up of the first love interest and her disapproving family, and then we get police investigating and warning about the first death and then a second murder, this time blamed on our characters, and they’re off to clear their names by… reuniting with Valerie and then bumbling through more characters before, finally the movie presents what it’s actually about well after a full hour-to-80 minutes of movie. It is exhausting and feels like a meandering alternative story that was clumsily grafted onto the Business Plot of 1933. The first half of the movie feels like a slipshod screwball comedy, and then once the particulars of a fascist conspiracy to overthrow the president are introduced, it’s like watching Looney Tunes characters try and foil Adolf Hitler. It just does not tonally work.
The Business Plot is a lesser known event in history, glossed over by the fact that the chief perpetrators more or less got away with their insurrectionist planning. They never did succeed in overthrowing FDR and installing their puppet, but they also did not get prosecuted in the end and most of the media dismissed the scheme as hogwash. It’s undetermined how advanced this plot eventually got but a coup was discussed by a consortium of business leaders. It feels like Russell is applying what he learned from 2013’s American Hustle, which introduced a crazy group of fictional criminals and then, in its last hour, explored the real Abscam criminal sting of the 1980s. I can see themes that Russell thinks are still prescient today, like a dark element desiring to overthrow the U.S. government because it didn’t get its way, as well as the collusion of big business in political king-making, seeking shells that will do what their benefactors demand. The problem is the themes behind this scheme are too serious for Russell’s trifling antics. Think about retelling the insurrection on January 6th but for the first hour it’s two bumbling bank robbers who keep finding themselves in the worst possible situations, ending at the U.S. Capitol. If you’re going to treat the rise of fascism, assisted by corporate overlords, as a serious threat, and something relevant for today, then maybe don’t have most of the movie be wacky nonsense.
Russell’s past films have often glided on energy and in-character authenticity, but this one feels so grasping and desperate. When the master plan to reveal the conspiracy and its shadowy participants is throwing together a big veteran’s show, I was reminded of the movies of young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where the solution to any dilemma was to put on a show. Then at one point the literal Nazis are singing loudly in German and are being confronted by our characters and the good patriotic Americans counter by singing “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” and I had to stop the movie and just let out a deep sigh. I think Russell was going for the famous reference in Casablanca, also against Nazis, but it just flounders into unintentional comedy, accentuated by the antsy energy that treats it like camp. There are a couple of spots that I laughed out loud, though I doubt that was the intended response, like watching Taylor Swift abruptly run over by a car. The attempts at actual humor are winding and often lead to little, and the characters feel like more of a collection of quirks than firmly established personalities and perspectives to anchor a movie. What does Bert having a false eye add besides something for Bale to fidget with? What does Chris Rock have to do here? What does Anya Taylor-Joy have to do here? Most egregiously, what does John David Washington have to do here? It feels like Russell just wanted a character for Bert to talk to. The screenplay is overstuffed and polluted with all these minor and underwritten characters that could have been better consolidated.
I suppose you can still have fun with Amsterdam and engage with it on a light-hearted level, smiling as you watch the many big stars having a good time messing around with accents, props, and wacky character traits and tics, like a bunch of kids with a dresser of costumes (maybe it is a throwback to those corny Rooney/Garland kids pictures after all). With other Russell movies, I’ve felt invigorated by the energy and artistry, encouraged to sit a little closer and be more attentive of the character turns, and dig into the actors making three-course meals of their roles. With Amsterdam, I felt the desperation to recreate the success of old patterns but the creeping realization that it wasn’t going to materialize. It’s just a big mess of a movie, not without interesting ideas or moments or good acting, but too much feels resoundingly and frustratingly frivolous. You could ditch entire characters, entire subplots, even entire hours of this movie. Amsterdam cost Disney/Fox $80 million dollars, the biggest of Russell’s career, and only earned a pittance, so I think there is a retraction in due order. Begin with not watching Amsterdam yourself.
Nate’s Grade: C
Posted on December 7, 2022, in 2022 Movies and tagged ana taylor-joy, andrea riseborough, chris rock, christian bale, comedy, david o. russell, drama, margot robbie, michael shannon, mike myers, period film, politics, rami malek, robert de niro, taylor swift, war, zoe saldana. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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