Sometime during the FDR presidency and in the middle of an existential battle against fascist tyrants, British Premiere Winston Churchill uttered a famous line about how so many had ended up owing so much to so few. The moniker seems apt, in reverse, to describe writer/director David O. Russell‘s new film, Amsterdam. Never in the field of moving picture history has so much talent amounted to so little. This is so because the film, which is loosely based on a murder plot set in the 1930s at the outset of the Roosevelt presidency, features a bulging array of talent both above and below the line, but is ultimately crushed under the weight of a script that is laden with too many different messages, subplots, stories, and jokes that try way too hard.
As billed, Amsterdam is the tale of a doctor, a nurse, and a lawyer who witness a murder and are then framed for it. These characters are played by Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, though the list of acting talent does not end anywhere near them. By the time the two-plus hours are over, you will see Oscar winners ranging from Robert DeNiro to Rami Malek, as well as other industry luminaries such as Zoe Saldana, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Anna Taylor-Joy, and even Taylor Swift.
To be fair, the top-billed cast is most impressive, because there is some surprising chemistry between their characters, which fit the mold of the surly, mostly unlikable characters that define Bale’s work, the peppy and mostly sweet women that Robbie typically embodies, and the more even-keeled and clever folks that Washington has been asked to portray. Taylor-Joy also deserves some supporting kudos for her turn as Robbie’s character’s sister, as she doesn’t overact a part that the script practically begs her to overplay, and keeps the character mostly in check with her convincing and confident gaze and typically pursed lips.
But the no-expense-spared approach to this production does not end with the people in front of the camera. Behind it, three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki lights up the screen with a subtle hue that evokes the noir genre while also staying true to the more playful nature of these particular proceedings. Meanwhile, editor Jay Cassidy is given the herculean task of splicing together a picture that is constantly shifting tones and direction, and of keeping a long list of characters, twists, and messages in check, and he acquits himself well enough in this mission.
Albert Wolsky‘s costumes are era-appropriate but also showy, classy, and varied, and they sit well with Alexender Wei‘s diverse sets, which range from stuffy interiors to grand buildings and everything in between. Daniel Pemberton puts the finishing touches on the collectively effective below-the-line effort with a soundtrack that is properly mysterious and comedic, and much more centered than the all-over-the-place script it accompanies.
The problem with Amsterdam, from start to finish, is that Russell has too many ideas and too little restraint to make the picture cohesive. His film is a love story, a murder mystery, a message movie, an anti-fascist creed, a buddy tale, and a lesson in the value of friendship. I probably missed a theme or 10, though. The jokes come in rapid fire, most of them too clever by half, and none of them necessarily connected to the next. Indeed, from the moment of the improbable witnessing of the murder to the even more unlikely framing of our central characters, you know that logic and cohesion are out the window, and “look at how clever I am” is the new tenant.
All that matters for Russell is the opportunity to tell you all of the fun ideas that came to his mind while working on this script. No one was able to stop him, and maybe nobody even tried, but that creative freedom proves to be to the detriment of the director’s impressive cast and his story, which is inherently intriguing, however improbable.
There is a reason that invoking FDR and Churchill seems natural in discussing Russell’s Amsterdam. The two juggernauts led a worldwide fight to crush — or at least temporarily stop — fascist dictators in their time. Amsterdam’s overstuffed message will claim no such achievement.
Amsterdam is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of 20th Century Studios.