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“Amsterdam” is a huge, star-studded, heated mess of a movie that is simultaneously overflowing and undernourished, furious and sluggish.
Alessandro Nivola, Zoe Saldana, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, and a long list of other well-known actors: How could you assemble such a cast and do such harm? It would have been immensely more entertaining to just lock them in a room and listen to them talk for the next two hours, or not say anything at all. Unfortunately, David O. Russell has created a wide range of adventures and detours, crazy antics, and intricate asides to keep his performers entertained—none of which are anywhere close to being as funny or endearing as he appears to believe.
I found myself asking this question repeatedly while watching “Amsterdam”: What is this movie about? What’s the point of all this? I would have to pause and gather my thoughts: What actually is happening right now? And not in an exciting, stimulating way like in “Memento” or “Cats,” for instance. It’s all confusing blather until it comes to an abrupt halt and compels several of its performers to give protracted speeches clarifying the themes Russell himself neglected to address throughout the preceding two rambling hours. Over the film’s pictures of Bohemian Rhapsody that we had only recently witnessed, the grand climax gives us some tedious, treacly narration extolling the value of love and generosity.
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We get the feeling as we watch that anything could happen at any time, as is the case in so many of the writer/prior director’s films. He frequently uses such vivacity in his camerawork and makes such bold tonal shifts that you are left in awe of how he manages to keep everything in harmony and intact. Unlike before, he doesn’t. Because “Amsterdam” doesn’t have the visually arresting language of films like “Three Kings” or “American Hustle,” for example, or the endearingly human people that he presents in “The Fighter” or “Silver Linings Playbook.” Despite the extraordinary ability on exhibit, none of the characters on television seem like actual people. Each consists of a variety of eccentricities, some more fascinating than others.
In the most basic terms, Bale and Washington play lifelong best friends who are accused of a murder they didn’t commit. They discover a bigger and more evil conspiracy while trying to figure out what is really going on. Russell’s story moves from 1933 New York to 1918 Amsterdam and back again, but he uses this period of history—and the fascist ideals that gained popularity at the time—to comment on recent developments in right-wing American politics. He finally drives home this idea with great force. First, though, whimsy
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Burt Berendsen, played by Bale, is a friendly doctor with a broken glass eye. He is dependent on his own homemade painkillers, which make him pass out and cause his eye to fall out. All throughout, Bale is giving intense schtick; he is dedicated to the part. The more composed of the two is Washington’s Harold Woodman, an attorney who served in the same racially diverse Army battalion as him in France during World War I. Their beloved general’s daughter (a distractingly stiff Taylor Swift) wants them to look into his strange death.
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However, as soon as they’re in danger, a memory of how they originally met arises. Actually, this is the film’s most entertaining section. Russell revels in the pair’s nostalgic recollections of their post-war years in Amsterdam with Robbie’s Valerie Voze, the nurse who treated them after they were hurt and soon joined them in all kinds of intoxicating antics. In order to evoke a sense of nostalgia, renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a multiple Oscar winner for his collaborations with Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”), dials back the sepia tones that frequently feel so oppressive. These scenes in Amsterdam provide a sense of true life and joy that is lacking elsewhere. Robbie, who is now a brunette, has an uncanny ability to glow. However, her character is also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who transforms bullet fragments into works of art. It serves as a crude metaphor for the calming influence she has on Burt and Harold.
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What makes “Amsterdam” so irritating is that it occasionally presents a scene, a conversation, or a performance that is genuinely enjoyable and perhaps approaches the goal Russell is attempting to achieve. Along the way, a number of couples and side stories would have produced for a more compelling film than the one we got: For instance, Malek and Taylor-Joy are a strange hoot as Valerie’s snobbish, ambitious brother and sister-in-law. (Now is an excellent time to emphasize the incredible costume design, which was created by the legendary Albert Wolsky and J.R. Hawbaker. The historical details are varied and vibrant, but Taylor-dresses—all Joy’s of them are bright red—are particularly creative.) It can be funny to watch Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts play two incompatible officers who can’t stand each other, and it appears like they are making an effort to give their characters more depth and nuance than what is written down. As a duo of spies, Shannon and Mike Myers are only amusing for brief moments.
But despite these sometimes enjoyable moments, “Amsterdam” is ultimately so confusing and tiresome that it destroys any potential for good. Its core message about the need for basic human decency appears like a cynical afterthought because of its excessively long running time and self-indulgent feeling of importance. Furthermore, as numerous of the characters do, just repeating “Amsterdam” doesn’t begin to cast the spell it aims to conjure.
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