Written and directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington
Classification R; 134 minutes
Opens in theatres Oct. 8
I feel that two confessions have to precede my review of Amsterdam, the new and extremely messy caper comedy from the acclaimed and infamous David O. Russell.
First: I confess to having no idea how the director is still skating by in the studio system, snagging high budgets and more stars than a Gal Gadot Imagine video all while carrying a reputation for being, let’s say, extremely challenging to work with. (Three Kings star George Clooney: Shooting the movie was “truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.” American Hustle’s Amy Adams: “I was really just devastated on set.” And if you would like to know how I Heart Huckabees’ Lily Tomlin found her experience with Russell, all you need is a quick trip to YouTube and a strong tolerance for extreme profanity.)
Anyway, the director does possess a talent for spinning narrative quirkiness into compelling cinematic madness. Sometimes this can result in such singular, beguiling works as Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, and sometimes we get ambitious but overwrought eye-rolls like The Fighter and American Hustle. Hollywood is an enterprise partially built on perpetual shoulder-shrugging, though, so here is Russell again, back with his first film in seven years, complete with big ideas, big set pieces and big stars (including returning collaborators Christian Bale and Robert De Niro).
Yet Amsterdam arrives with such a self-important, bewildering, commendably non-franchise-able big-ness to it, that I now have to spill my second confession: The film’s first 15 minutes very nearly put me to sleep.
Perhaps it was because I woke up ridiculously early the morning of the film’s press screening (thanks a lot, 13-month-old baby daughter). Or perhaps it was because the beginning of Amsterdam is the kind of sloppy exposition dump that can only result in head-scratching boredom. As Bale’s character goes on in a voice-over narration about his faux-wacky situation and predicament – I’ll attempt to summarize both in a moment – I very slowly started to approach the sweet relief of slumber-land.
But just before I succumbed, Amsterdam tossed one of its biggest stars into a moment of purely meme-able outrageousness that I wouldn’t dare spoil here, but that shocked me enough to sit straight up in a fit of giggly oh-come-on-now outrage. From then on, I was glued to the chaos. Not because Amsterdam is, by any stretch of the term, a good movie. Only because it is an absolutely manic one – a cinematic car crash that demands rubbernecking from the most exhausted of audiences.
Preceded by an annoying “A lot of this really happened” title card – the laziest way to pre-emptively quash accusations that the script is beyond far-fetched – Amsterdam focuses on three characters whose unlikely friendship was formed in the fires of the First World War. There is the New York doctor Burt Berendsen (Bale), who was pushed to join the battle by his high-society father-in-law. There is the aspiring lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who finds that Europe is no escape from the racism that he faced back in America. And there is the nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who has a passion for both healing the wounded and using the shrapnel recovered from their bodies for a kind of art that only David Cronenberg might appreciate.
The trio bond while healing from their physical and emotional injuries in the film’s title city, a postwar paradise where they fall into a sort of a pre-millennial “throuple” situation (minus the sex, which only occurs between Harold and Valerie), before secrets and tensions tear them from one another. Decades pass, and suddenly the three are thrust into a needlessly convoluted murder-mystery that points toward suspects who may be plotting to destroy America itself.
I would attempt to detail the mechanics of the narrative further, but they are alternately forgettable and frustrating, as if Russell was writing Coen Bros. fan-fiction in crayon. What I can say is that the filmmaker’s cast members look as bewildered as you or I might in trying to recall the exact twists and turns of the story, or their places within it. Not that they don’t try. Lord, they try.
Bale, who is a glutton for whatever Russell may or may not be dishing out on-set, survives best, coming out the other side with a truly unhinged performance that is equal parts screwball and tragic. Not every actor can find new, interesting ways to fall to the ground after being assaulted or having ingested too many narcotics, but Bale treats every confounding scene, every incomprehensible moment that Russell throws at him, as a challenge to be met with passion and determination. Robbie nearly accomplishes the same, even when her character is saddled with a sudden case of vertigo that recalls, in a head-shaking way, Liza Minnelli’s running gag on television’s Arrested Development.
Come to think of it, almost every performer who wanders into Amsterdam leaves an indelible mark – and, really, Russell has roped nearly everyone who he, you or I could imagine to participate. Chris Rock, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers (doing a nice pip-pip-cheerio riff on his Inglourious Basterds cameo), even Taylor Swift herself. With the unfortunate exception of Washington – who, despite his sturdy work in Tenet just does not possess the easy charm required for his role here – all the performers seem extraordinarily game. The only thing is that Russell’s film is not remotely playable. Amsterdam so badly wants to be a light romp with heavy-duty meaning that it cannot help but be flattened by a sagging self-exhaustion. It is an exercise in interminable madcappery.
One last bonus confession, then: I will still watch – with a full night’s rest – whatever film Russell makes next. But only because it cannot possibly be as maddening as Amsterdam.