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Stellar cast can’t bring story into focus

Most of the movie plays like a fluttering hummingbird

Not even Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington can save "Amsterdam."

Brent Leuthold

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 12, 2022

On its surface, Amsterdam has the hallmarks of a refined mid-budget studio film for which critics and cinephiles clamor routinely. Arriving at the beginning of the oft-competitive awards season, it’s helmed by an acclaimed writer/director in David O. Russell and sports an even more accomplished ensemble cast. It’s a movie about serious subjects that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is based on a true story (with wink-wink exceptions) that doesn’t slavishly adhere itself to the facts. Most importantly, it belongs to a group AMC refers to as Artisan Films, a term for pretty much any movie that leaps over the low bar of not being based on existing IP. 

Given all this pedigree, it’s a massive disappointment with sparks of genius that get snuffed out by an avalanche of dead-end plot points and a myriad of fussed-over characters.

After a “you’re probably wondering how I got here” prologue set in the early 1930s, Amsterdam flashes back to World War I where infantry doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) meets fellow soldier Harold Woodsman (John David Washington). The brothers in arms are wounded during battle and treated by nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie), whose eccentricities and magnetism draws the three of them together through wartime and afterwards when the trio move to Amsterdam. After carefree years of dancing and palling around, Burt and Harold leave for New York City, the former beginning his own medical practice and the latter becoming a lawyer. The death of their mutual commanding officer Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) brings them back together, but a curious autopsy sends them on a chase for clues when they begin to suspect murder.

It’s about halfway through its runtime that Amsterdam finally focuses in on its real-life inspiration: the uncovering of a fascist political conspiracy by a group of oligarchs to overthrow FDR and install a dictator. While such a true story is worth investigating at feature length, the film gets way too bogged down with a cavalcade of detectives, spies, and hitmen to retain narrative cohesion. Familiar faces from Zoë Saldaña to Taylor Swift to Chris Rock show up to impart some passing notes on the storyline, but don’t have a lasting impact beyond being recognizable. Most of the movie plays like a fluttering hummingbird, rapidly whipping its pretty wings while staying roughly in the same place to sip on the nectar of vacuous words.

With films like The Fighter and American Hustle in his oeuvre, Russell has proven he can wield a star-powered cast, but the story in Amsterdam simply gets away from him. Credited as the sole screenwriter, he gets too tangled up in knotty espionage threads and dubious romantic through lines to reach a clear set of themes that resonate. With a tighter screenplay, it’s possible Russell’s brand of controlled chaos could have given this movie the verve it needed to hum, but without the right music, it’s just a cacophony of discordant allegros. The actors, which also include Oscar winners like Robert De Niro and Rami Malek, do what they can with the herky-jerky material and occasionally manifest moments of manic brilliance, but ultimately, it all goes to pot.

I attended an IMAX screening, a presentation typically reserved for big-budget blockbusters due to the larger screen and enhanced sound, but I appreciate that 20th Century made it available in that format. Emmanuel Lubezki, the visionary cinematographer behind works like Birdman and The Revenant, brings forth signature touches like roving close-ups and extended takes to draw us into these characters. His camera also loves the faces of these movie stars and seems to revel in both their beauty and their imperfections. As social creatures, our eyes are drawn to faces and subconsciously, we go to the movies to study them and, hopefully, to learn something new about each other. It’s just a shame Amsterdam has little to offer beyond that.

New movies coming this weekend

Coming to theaters and streaming on Peacock is Halloween Ends, a slasher sequel starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Andi Matichak that allegedly caps off the showdown between masked murderer Michael Myers and perpetual survivor Laurie Strode.

Streaming on Hulu is Rosaline, a romantic comedy starring Kaitlyn Dever and Isabela Merced which retells Shakespeare’s most well-known story from the point of view of Romeo’s titular ex-girlfriend, who Romeo first claims to love before he falls for Juliet.

Happening at Cinema Center from Oct. 13-16 is the Hobnobben Film Festival, which will screen a festival-record 128 films over the four-day event. Go to hobnobben.org to learn more about the festival, including the full schedule and ticket information.

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