Synopsis – Set in the ’30s, it follows three friends who witness a murder, become suspects themselves, and uncover one of the most outrageous plots in American history.
My Take – Despite some disturbing accusations made against him recently, over the years, filmmaker David O Russell has well proven his cinematic track record with films like Three Kings (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). Hence, it was unsurprising when the writer-director decides to roll out his latest after a seven-year long gap, high expectations were immediately attached.
Especially with a star-studded cast that is filled out with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, and other talented actors. And a promise of delivering a fast-paced, quirky, charming, and unique mystery set in 1930s. Unfortunately, on that front the film disappoints. While director Russell brings along his usual pizzazz and the continuous appearances of known faces keeps the film continuously entertaining, his ambitious jigsaw puzzle of a plot is almost impossible to follow and mishandles its amazing potential.
Simply told, the film’s witty jokes and strong acting performances just couldn’t save the poor plot and confusing characters arcs. In the end, the film becomes a hit and miss attempt to loosely base off a true historical event that just doesn’t pay off. Making this a lesson that a large, well-known cast is not always going to translate into success.
The film gets too caught up in its plot to allow its characters room to breathe. When the central trio are alone in a room it feels like they have been friends for years. However, director Russell forces them out of that room in favor of a slow-moving plot, it begins to hang by threads.
Primarily taking place in 1933 with extended flashbacks to World War I and the years immediately following, the story follows best friends Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a rough-spoken but warm-hearted surgeon who is mainly into experimenting with multiple medical options focused on injured war veterans, and Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a distinguished lawyer, whose interesting lives rather turns dangerous when they are contacted by Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer (Ed Begley Jr). The daughter suspects foul play in the death of her father, who was scheduled to give a speech at an upcoming military reunion gala.
But when they end up with scandalous autopsy findings and accused of Elizabeth’s murder, the two are forced to go on the run. Finding themselves entangled in a conspiracy, their efforts to prove their innocence by unmasking these villains also reunites them with their former friend, Valerie (Margot Robbie), a sporadic, intelligent and wacky nurse who had treated the duo’s injuries during the war. Leading to the trio to form a strong bond, and a move to Amsterdam, until they abruptly parted ways.
Based loosely on the 1933 U.S. political uprising known as “The Business Plot,” the film’s story actually has a lot of potential, but the way the film goes through it ends up feeling very convoluted. And unable to find a tone, the film plods along at its own airless, internal pace, leaving most of the actors so befuddled it’s not always clear they know what they’re aiming at either. There are so many characters and so many story lines and so many familiar faces that the film couldn’t possibly be expected to flow smoothly. And it doesn’t.
The film takes many hard turns, swerving in and out of motives and plot lines, including Berendsen’s unusual love life, bird watching, a veteran’s reunion and most importantly, a secret society that vows to overthrow President Roosevelt and replace him with a U.S. dictator after seeing the success of Mussolini and Hitler.
The film meanders when it’s not downright choppy, and it often plays like a scripted series trying too hard to appear improvisational. Many characters and plot lines seemed completely unnecessary, and the film’s historical significance quickly became muddled. The film reaches for something contemporary to say about race relations, concentration of wealth, veterans and fascism but ends up with a plodding and violently confusing pathway.
This is a film where no one seems to answer a direct question, gruesome autopsies are performed on camera followed by whimsically sung ditties, and a script that tries for the profound when it says things like people follow the wrong God home.
That being said, the film does manage to find success when it is focused on the leading trio. Together, Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington establish an admirable chemistry without much to work with. The film dedicates important time to their friendship. Whilst this does blunt the pacing, it ends up being worth it as the trio are the heart of the film.
Without a doubt, Bale does the best job out of the leading trio, infusing his lines with an enjoyable trepidation that works for the depths he finds himself in. His mannerisms also add to his character, his slightly hunched back and off-kilter walk helping to establish him as a character who has existed before the events of the film.
Comparatively, to her other works, Margot Robbie is a little less charming, but a reliable presence nonetheless. The same goes for John David Washington, who seems to be struggling in Bale’s shadow. In supporting roles, Robert De Niro, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, Andrea Riseborough, Timothy Olyphant, Matthias Schoenaerts and Taylor Swift are equally good. On the whole, ‘Amsterdam’ is a subpar comedy mystery drama that wastes its incredible talent on a dull story.
Directed – David O. Russell
Rated – R
Run Time – 134 minutes