Amsterdam opens with a tagline that reads “A lot of this really happened,” a cutesy testimony meant to foreshadow that the film will at once relay a fascinating true story, while also cheekily muddying the line between fiction and reality. But the only thing that writer/director David O. Russell muddies is his own plot.
Amsterdam follows an unlikely trio: A one-eyed eccentric named Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), his deadpan best friend Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a rollicking military nurse with an affinity for forging macabre sculptures out of bloody shrapnel. The three meet at the tail end of World War I, and instantly forge a lifelong bond.
The majority of Amsterdam takes place over a decade after the War, at which time Burt is an experimental New York City plastic surgeon, Harold is an attorney and neither has heard from Valerie in years. The film kicks into gear when Burt and Harold are framed for murder by a devious stranger, and are subsequently sent on wild-goose chase to clear their names. Like Amsterdam’s opening tagline, the goose-chase is relentlessly silly, from “nonsense songs” composed of whimsical French words, to drug-related physical humor and a literal freeze-framed, “I bet you’re wondering how I ended up here” moment.
But for most of its 132 minutes, eccentricity is the least of Amsterdam’s problems. More than anything, the film is flat-out confusing—and not in a lively Inherent Vice or Under the Silver Lake way, but rather in an aggravating what-the-hell-is-the-point-of-this? way.
A lot of this confusion is tonal. The film flip-flops between making you think it concerns some ominous, world-threatening conspiracy, and then leading you to believe it’s just another film about three amigos who just can’t stop getting themselves into trouble, gosh darnit! The switcheroo occurs at such breakneck speed that, by the halfway point, you’ll probably just want to give up and stop guessing what the film is actually about (that is, unless you’re familiar with the niche and mostly forgotten historical event in question).
When watching a mystery unfold, it’s important that the viewer is given at least a semblance of a chance to figure out what’s going on, and take a wild guess at how the whole thing might end. But in Amsterdam, Russell insists on keeping his audience in the dark for most of the film’s runtime. What’s left, then, is nothing more than a brief, vaguely satisfying “a-ha!” moment when the semi-twist ending comes mostly out of nowhere.
So, if not intrigue, what actually holds Amsterdam together? After stripping away a flailing plot, the only thing left of the film is the supposed air-tight bond between the odd-trio—a bond that is really hammered home throughout the film (especially in its final “love is all you need” voiceover).
Is this bond a strong enough adhesive for its thin and bewildering story? Not really. Surprisingly, the chemistry between otherwise phenomenal actors Robbie and Washington is non-existent. On top of this, we aren’t given much reason to believe the trio truly love each other enough to commit to a lifelong bond, apart from montages of them dancing together at clubs in Amsterdam. (If this is enough to forge a meaningful relationship, then I guess I’m indebted to a whole lot of people.) And, of course, there’s them saying that their bond matters… over… and over… and over again.
The lack of chemistry between the leads is surprising, because they are all just so damn good. Bale completely transforms himself, playing Burt with a hunched, restless physicality, and landing a handful of physical comedy punchlines along the way. Washington similarly nails the part of straight-laced Harold, letting emotion subtly seep through his stoic expression every so often—just enough to pull on your heartstrings the perfect amount. But when all is said and done, it’s Robbie who steals the show. Her comic timing is impeccable, and she plays Valerie with a restrained lawlessness. She is one of those rare, natural camera magnets; it’s a genuine challenge to look at anyone else when she is in frame.
But come to think of it, there really isn’t a performance in Amsterdam that doesn’t work, which proves that the glaring issue with the film is its storytelling. Chris Rock dishes up the film’s laugh-out-loud moments and Anya Taylor-Joy similarly flexes her comedic chops, leading one to ask if there’s anything she can’t do. Zoe Saldaña adds a layer of emotional depth to the film (though it is a travesty how little she is given to do), Mike Myers is derangedly hilarious (and is also criminally underutilized), Michael Shannon is, well… Michael Shannon, (and I mean that in the best way possible), Robert De Niro is a powerhouse, Andrea Riseborough dishes up a wicked slice of femme fatale and Timothy Olyphant is deliciously villainous. Oh, and did I mention that Taylor Swift absolutely rocks in this movie? I’m not going to say anything else about her role or performance, because you really do have to see it to believe it.
If you’re thinking: How can all of these incredible performances not save Amsterdam? The answer is, they do help, as does the vibrant, no-frills cinematography by the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki, and the whip-tight editing by Jay Cassidy. But when all is said and done, storytelling this glaringly flawed cannot be overlooked, and the wonderful elements of Amsterdam can only do so much to glue together this faltering house of cards.
Director: David O. Russell
Writer: David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.