Directed by: David O. Russell
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios
Written by Taylor Baker
“Amsterdam” joins a half dozen or so lazy whodunnit’s this year that seem hollow against Branagh’s messy but earnest “Death on the Nile” that opened in February. Steeped in postwar America and Europe it follows an unlikely troupe of a self-medicated doctor, a lawyer, and a nurse on a quest to solve a murder, and maybe the soul of the world at the same time. Squandering performers like Chris Rock and Mike Myers as nonchalantly as it gets its best supporting performances from Andrea Riseborough and Alessandro Nivola. The frivolity of the leaps from continent to continent and gutter to manse are difficult to contend with. One minute we’re in the sumptuous interior of a run-down Amsterdam apartment and the next a meticulously dressed wet sidewalk in the slums of New York. There is reason to Russell’s film but little rhyme.
“Joy” marked the last time David O. Russell worked with his muse and cinema darling Jennifer Lawrence and the last film he put on the silver screen. Since then Russell has been more or less forgotten, his previous malfeasances recirculated, and despite his seemingly perineal awards contention, left to obscurity. “Amsterdam” sees him leaning on capable performers in Margot Robbie, John David Washington, and Christian Bale, with De Niro once again joining Russell as a rocksteady supporting character to lean his plot machinations against. Continuing a relationship that started a decade ago in 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” De Niro plays the role of Gil Dillenbeck based on the real-life Major General Smedly Butler “Maverick Marine”, one of the most decorated men in American history.
In “Amsterdam” Russell is steering a wide narrative, filled with convenience, contrivance, and needlessness. That’s not to say it’s all unenjoyable but it feels inauthentic and stripped back to superfluousness. The earnestness and flaws of two of its leads, Bale’s Burt Berensden and Robbie’s Valerie Voze are disjointed from the very arc of the film. Its story is a novelistic tale that one might call Dickensian, and it seems Russell is unable or ill-suited to bring his best artistry to bear on such a narrative. Russell like Aronofsky has been a director that is far more engaging with a main character-driven narrative. He’s lost precisely what had made him special attempting to tackle a sprawling tale that auteurs like Ridley Scott and Wes Anderson have made their careers out of.
It’s also worthwhile to note that “Amsterdam” is one of the final films developed under Fox when they still owned Searchlight Pictures, and there is a conversation to be had about whether successes (like “Nightmare Alley”) and flubs such as this–original IP, made for adults, starring stars–will continue to be made by Searchlight now that they’re under Mouse management or if this niche disappears into the inartistic commercialism of the white-gloved paws of Disney. For all its tepidness “Amsterdam” does grasp at bigger ideas of the traumas of war, fitting into society, and closed-door policy-making by elites with nefarious interests. That it feels like a piecemeal film made up of dozens of other films talking points and premises is precisely what cements its unremarkability, what a pity.