Amsterdam

MA 15+, 134 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Set in New York in 1933, this tale about love, friendship and politics would have been so much better were it crisp, sleek and sharp. It’s an ambitious undertaking from David O Russell, hinting at the dangers for democracy in turbulent economic times, but he has fallen short of the bar he has set himself.

It is a surprise, when most of the films from this filmmaker have made a strong impression. Russell hasn’t delivered a lot of films over the three decades that he has been active, but he has shown impressive range, depth and skill. With diverse work like his so-very-contemporary relationship drama Silver Linings Playbook, his brilliantly subversive anti-Iraq war satire Three Kings, and American Hustle, his dark crime comedy about fraud and corruption. The sports bio, The Fighter, was also impressive.

Margot Robbie shines, but the marquee name actors, many of whom have shown in lead roles that they can carry film, have little to do

On this occasion, the narrative begins when a dead white man inside a pine box that doesn’t have a cover over is wheeled in, and a white woman (Taylor Swift) who requests an autopsy is pushed under a bus. A bad start, observes war veteran Milton King (Chris Rock), that doesn’t augur well for Black Americans. He should know, he even experienced racism while under fire alongside fellow Americans on the battlefield in Belgium.

Flashback to 1918. Veterans and close friends, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold (John David Washington), are waiting for treatment for disfiguring war wounds in hospital in France. A fetching nurse, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whisks them off to Amsterdam where Burt can get the best glass replacement for the eye he has lost. The friends then stay on together in the city of canals, where the past is a forgotten country, as they recapture some of the youthful freedoms lost to war.

Back to New York in the early 1930s, long after their return. Burt is an established doctor specializing in war veteran facial reconstruction and rehabilitation and Harry is practising law, when the body of US Senator is wheeled into Burt’s surgery with a request from his family for an autopsy. Their quiet lives of the two friends are pitched into a dangerous political conspiracy.

A mixed experience, with moments of lacklustre writing and uncertain direction, that ends on an awkward note

A short while later, when the Senator’s daughter, Elizabeth (Taylor Swift), tells them the name of the person she suspects caused her father’s untimely death, a man (Timothy Olyphant) steps out of the crowd and pushes her under a bus. Burt and Harry suddenly find themselves murder suspects.

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in Amsterdam. Image courtesy Twentieth Century Studios

Like many other performers in this ensemble piece, Taylor Swift and Timothy Olyphant have little more than cameo roles. There are an astonishing number of marquee name actors gathered together in Amsterdam, many of whom have shown in lead roles that they can carry film, but they have little to do here. Why include an actor like Timothy Olyphant, completely unrecognisable, when all he contributes are a few scenes that call for so little? Actors Michael Shannon, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy and Zoe Saldana have more to do than those two, but we don’t really get our money’s worth out of the support performers until Rami Malek and Robert De Niro appear on the scene with each getting a bit more space to develop and make an impression.

As the central characters, buddies Burt and Harry, Bale and Washington do their best with their lines, but their plight doesn’t drive the narrative with conviction, even though Burt’s narration guides us through from beginning to end. It’s when the third member of the friendship trio appears, Robbie’s nurse-turned-artist Valerie, that the action involving the main characters really comes to life.

Amsterdam certainly looks great, on the other hand. The director of photography, acclaimed Mexican cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won three Academies for his lustrous work, and the visuals here are a pleasure.

At a running time of over 2.5 hours, Amsterdam is quite an undertaking. Despite tackling themes that connect with us today, racism and the re-emergence of forms of fascism, Amsterdam is a mixed experience, marred by moments of lacklustre writing and uncertain direction that ends on an awkward note.

It is David O Russell’s first film in seven years and his first since the rise and fall of President Trump. As far as political satire of recent American history goes, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up did it better.

Review first published in the Canberra Times on 7 October 2022.   Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes