The worst sin a movie can commit is to be boring. The second worst sin is to be confusing. Amsterdam commits both sins. Writer/director David O. Russell very loosely bases his story on an actual historical event known as the Business Plot. If you don't know what that is, I won't tell you because it would spoil the film (not that I'm in any way recommending you see it). Potential exists for a riveting drama with parallels to recent events in America. What we get instead is a meandering tale that never fully capitalizes on its central concept. I walked out of the theater thinking "Amster-damn, that was terrible!"
Doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and lawyer Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) are World War I veterans and best friends. In flashback we see both sustained injuries in combat, which is how they met nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three became inseparable, even traveling to the titular country together, and Harold and Valerie fell in love. Now there's trouble. Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former regiment commander, has died, supposedly of natural causes. She suspects foul play and asks Burt to do an autopsy. The results show poison in his system. When Elizabeth is murdered a short time later, Burt and Harold are framed as the culprits.
Long story short, they try to clear their names with Valerie's help. The path leads them into contact with American and British spies (Michael Shannon and Mike Myers), highly decorated retired General Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro), and the most influential members of high society, including Valerie's brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). Also shoehorned into the story, unnecessarily, are another former soldier (Chris Rock), a mortuary worker (Zoe Saldana), Burt's disapproving wife (Andrea Riseborough), and a pair of dimwitted cops (Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts).
Russell is the wrong person to tell this story. His films, from Flirting with Distaster to Silver Linings Playbook, are typically filled with quirkiness. Amsterdam is not a movie that benefits from being quirky. A running joke about Burt's glass eye adds nothing to the plot, and the constant need to pause for random bits of weird comedy - like the spies' obsession with birds - only slows down the pace. A movie about wrongly accused people trying to prove their innocence should have a plot that ticks like a clock. Amsterdam is more like a cuckoo clock, filled with irrelevant bells and whistles that serve no purpose in telling you what time it is.
Subsequently, the story becomes increasingly hard to follow, and that in turn breeds boredom. Without dramatic momentum, it just plods along, indulging in its own self-conscious weirdness until a voiceover at the end finally wraps things up. To call the resolution offensive would be inaccurate, although the very heavy revelation unleashed in the denouement deserves more serious treatment than Amsterdam gives it. When your movie is filled with gags about a guy's glass eye popping out all the time, you don't introduce that into the mix. The finale tries to go for something meaningful, but the tone prior to that hasn't earned meaning, and viewers are likely to have stopped caring anyway by that point.
Bale, Robbie, and Washington give their best effort. Heck, everyone in the cast gives their best. What could they have seen in this material, though? Amsterdam is chaotic, with an unfocused story that goes in too many directions all at once, leading to a conclusion that makes you realize how good it might have been without all the smug humor. Seeing such a great cast wasted on a plot that misfires so badly is disheartening.
Note: David O. Russell has a history of appalling, abusive behavior, including alleged sexual assault of his niece. While that in no way impacted my opinion of Amsterdam, there's no denying that a review, positive or negative, helps bring attention and publicity to a movie. To balance out that attention, I will link to this article that goes into significant detail about his actions.
out of four
Amsterdam is rated R for brief violence and bloody images. The running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.