One of the worst films of the last decade is David O. Russell’s aggravating, exhausting American Hustle, a film that slathered a cavalcade of famous and wealthy actors in gaudy makeup and had them playact as regular folk in a half-assed, soulless Scorsese rip-off. Despite initial praise and Oscar nominations galore, it nevertheless signified something of a turning point for Russell, a filmmaker who has had accusations of abuse levied at him both on and off-set, as he leapt into extravagant self-parody. With Hustle, O. Russell gave in to his every indulgence, resulting in something as floppy and unconvincing as the hairpiece Christian Bale sported in the film. Mark Wahlberg’s bruising boxing drama The Fighter (the last time, to my mind, O. Russell made something worth a damn) was something of the distant past by the time Russell’s last film Joy landed with a resounding thud.
Boasting a remarkably stacked cast and a vivid postwar setting, David O. Russell’s return to the screen after the underwhelming Joy is an absolute mess. A mishmash of poorly blended tones, thinly drawn characters and a patronising, overwrought plot suggest the controversial filmmaker has seen better days.
More than any other of his works, Amsterdam most closely resembles American Hustle in its remarkable ability to give one a pounding migraine, while managing to say absolutely nothing for the large majority of its runtime. Why his work continues to draw in a who’s-who of the biggest and brightest stars in the world to conjure his empty tales – here including Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor Joy, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Zoe Saldaña and, sigh, Christian Bale – is anyone’s guess. In Amsterdam, nearly every actor is saddled with a role so thin that even these celebrated performers strain themselves trying to achieve any kind of intimacy, humour, humanity or verisimilitude.
The plodding, pointlessly convoluted plot follows three World War One veterans – a doctor (Bale), a soldier (Washington) and a nurse (Robbie) – who find themselves drawn into a murder plot that involves a shadowy group operating on the fringes of American high society. The three, who have made a pact of loyalty despite little chemistry, guide the story via interweaving voiceovers that feel tacked on in an attempt to paper over a film so haphazardly edited that it often feels as though the performers are delivering completely different emotions from shot-to-shot, even within the space of single line-readings. Throughout Amsterdam’s two-hour-plus (and it feels longer) runtime, face after famous face fills the screen, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically overwrought and showy lensing pushing us into the action with endless, unmotivated closeups, to the point where it becomes somehow both laughable and shrug-worthy. Of the central trio, Washington acquits himself best, simply because he doesn’t seem to be giving it a whole lot of energy. Bale (who seems to have lost the ability to simply play a human person) inhabits Bertram, his one-eyed and hobbled doctor, as a hackneyed nettle of quirks and tics – a total bore. Robbie, meanwhile, never lands on just how quirky or manic her nurse-cum-turncoat-cum-spy should be, meaning she never shakes off the impression that we are simply watching Margot Robbie mug for the camera. It’s a rare bum note for an actor of transformative talent.
There’s plenty else buzzing away on the fringes of the story – high society shenanigans, half-baked romances, the politics of wounded veterans, Taylor Swift – but it is all handled with this hapless blend of Russell’s trademark improvisational approach and the more formal trappings of his story, meaning that he never finds a rhythm. What makes Amsterdam a uniquely annoying experience is the waiting, as the film stumbles along, and the viewer waits for it to click into place – but it never does. By film’s end, as Russell tools his story into an empty, neoliberal plea for everyone to just get along (ironic, considering the filmmaker), Amsterdam has so deeply outstayed its welcome that its smug, self-congratulatory conclusion feels like nothing more than nails in an ornate, chintzy coffin.
In cinemas now.
Movie title: Amsterdam (O. Russell, 2022)
Movie description: Boasting a remarkably stacked cast and a vivid postwar setting, David O. Russell’s return to the screen after the underwhelming Joy is an absolute mess. A mishmash of poorly blended tones, thinly drawn characters and a patronising, overwrought plot suggest the controversial filmmaker has seen better days.
Date published: October 6, 2022
Author: David O. Russell
Director(s): David O. Russell
Actor(s): Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington
Genre: Drama, Comedy, History