Few films can be more frustrating than those with important ideas, buried behind bad filmmaking. This can be especially true of large ensemble films, which can find themselves unable to focus on a group of characters. In the case of Amsterdam, the focus is clear. A three-headed showcase of Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Margot Robbie drives the narrative. Sadly, a mess of a screenplay sinks the film early and continues to distract throughout.
In the aftermath of World War I, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) provides medical care for veterans. His business partner, friend, and lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington) brings him into a case to perform an autopsy. General Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) is dead, but his daughter (Taylor Swift) suspects foul play. When Berendsen and Woodman become suspects for murder, they seek to clear their names. In the process, they reunite with an old friend Valerie (Margot Robbie), who reminds them of a better time in life.
While that plot would be convoluted enough, the ever-expanding cast muddies the waters. To attempt to add texture to the film, David O. Russell adds far too many side plots, diversions, and digressions. This adds distracting performances from Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, and Michael Myers into the fold. While Rock and Myers’ performance styles feel too modern for the story, Shannon fits into the era. However, his stature feels far too large for such a tiny role. The same can be said for a glorified series of cameos for Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Alessandro Nivola. While Timothy Olyphant distracts in another limited role, the character affects the story. Again, Russell wishes to pack his cast full of great performers and, as a result, waters down the content to let each “do their thing” rather than serve the greater narrative.
Another aspect that grinds the film to a halt is the recurring gags and bits that simply fall flat. There’s a recurring joke at Nivola’s expense about not serving because of his flat feet. The joke works once, but by the fifth time we’ve heard the same backhanded joke, it becomes grating. Despite attempts to show us the horror of veteran care, the film also goes out of its way to turn these injuries into jokes. The most obvious are the ailments that affect Bale’s character, turning his fake eyeball into a gimmick to score cheap laughs at least a half-dozen times throughout the story.
Perhaps the single most frustrating element of Amsterdam is the surface level discussion of fascism. Rather than attempt to showcase the idea that fascism is bad outright, it forces us through a mystery plot that could not be more obvious. When one actor arrived on screen, the audience around me groaned, knowing they were going to be the villain. Yeah he film does nothing to hide who the bad guys are, instead trading in the more nefarious subtle evils that go on in the world for open Nazis. Quite frankly, if this film awakens the audience to fascist tendencies brewing in America today, we are already too late.
Despite all of this, there are elements that many will enjoy. After all, Bale and Robbie are superstars at the peak of their powers. The fact they turn out good performances in this mess of a film is no surprise. Additionally, Emmanuel Lubeski shoots the hell out of the film, adding more nuance and texture through his impressionistic lens. Without these three elements, Amsterdam would be unbearable. Even with them, this still feels like an abject failure of storytelling and vision.