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Amsterdam Movie Review

Amsterdam (2022) movie poster

Amsterdam

Theatrical Release: October 7, 2022 / Running Time: 127 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Burt Berendsen), Margot Robbie (Valerie Voze), John David Washington (Harold Woodman), Alessandro Nivola (Detective Hiltz), Andrea Riseborough (Beatrice Vandenhuevel), Anya Taylor-Joy (Libby Voze), Chris Rock (Milton King), Matthias Schoenaerts (Detective Lem Getweiler), Michael Shannon (Henry Norcross), Mike Myers (Paul Canterbury), Taylor Swift (Liz Meekins), Timothy Olyphant (Taron Millfax), Zoe Saldaña (Irma St. Clair), Rami Malek (Tom Voze), Robert De Niro (General Gil Dillenbeck), Ed Begley Jr. (General Bill Meekins), Colleen Camp (Eva Ott), Tom Irwin (Mr. Belport), Leland Orser (Mr. Nevins), David Babbitt (Mr. Jeffers)

As the director of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, three of the very best movies made last decade, David O. Russell should be revered. And it seems as though he is among distinguished actors making their living in film. The Internet, however, is a different story. Around the time that Russell's winning streak turned American Hustle into an Oscar frontrunner for a few days in January 2014, the Internet struck back. They voted down that comic drama about the FBI's Abscam operation, giving it ratings just a touch above average on IMDb and Letterboxd. Part of the sentiment towards the filmmaker is just standard Internet negativity. It eventually becomes unfashionable to like any successful and popular entertainer, even those who avoid scandal after many years in the public eye: Will Ferrell, Jennifer Lawrence, etc.

Russell has not managed to avoid scandal. He's apparently not the most pleasant man to work with, his run-ins with George Clooney and Amy Adams being well-documented and his verbal sparring with Lily Tomlin going viral in the early days of YouTube. Then, there is the concerning incident involving Russell's transgender niece. Police decided not to pursue charges, so naturally ten years later, Russell remains guilty until proven otherwise by the angry Internet mobs who revel in "cancelling" individuals over alleged/reported wrongdoing. Unpleasant people most certainly do suck, but when did that become the basis for boycotts and unemployability? As well-intentioned as such social justice crusaders might be, there just aren't enough great writer-directors out there to do away with one over occurrences nobody was around to witness.

If Russell's reputation gives the film world unrest, it is hard to tell by looking at his latest effort, Amsterdam, which arrives from a major studio (20th Century Studios, now part of Disney's empire) at a time when it could easily compete for awards with a large cast that could rank among the most talented ever assembled. That cast includes Christian Bale and Robert De Niro, dramatic heavyweights working with the director for the third and fourth times, respectively. Are we really to believe that some teenager with a Twitter account knows better than these two accomplished and respected actors, who clearly think enough of Russell to keep collaborating with him?

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington play three friends looking to clear their names and expose political conspiracy in David O. Russell's "Amsterdam."

With that trail of electronic tirades necessarily addressed, let us turn our attentions to Russell's first film since 2015's Joy. In its opening text, Amsterdam claims "a lot of this actually happened", which is almost identical to the phrase that Russell used at the beginning of American Hustle. The two films are extremely kindred, tales of flawed human characters trying to do right while caught in the middle of an historic mess. The narrative of Amsterdam is messier and less universally intriguing than that of Hustle. It also takes place much earlier, jumping around from the 1930s to the 1910s, eras that predate nearly everyone still going to the movies these days.

Our protagonist is Dr. Burt Berendsen (Bale), a World War I veteran dedicated to helping wounded and disfigured vets with medical treatment and experimental drugs. The cause is personal to Burt, who sports facial scarring and a glass eye as the results of a war injury. Burt's best friend, black lawyer and fellow Army man Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), convinces him to oversee the hasty autopsy of their former commander turned senator (Ed Begley Jr.) as a favor to the decedent's daughter (Taylor Swift). Burt's misgivings prove to be well-founded as he discovers the senator has not died of natural causes and then, he and Harold end up the chief suspects in a related murder.

Burt and Harold try to use the connections of the respected family Burt married into (a marriage hanging on by a thread, if that) to clear their names and cool off the heat on them. Their loopy mission reconnects them with Valerie (Margot Robbie), the artistic third member of the friendship trio they formed in Amsterdam after the war as well as the charismatic General Gil Dillenbeck (De Niro).

Burt (Christian Bale), Valerie (Margot Robbie), and Harold (John David Washington) consult a couple of bird watchers (Michael Shannon, Mike Myers) who might definitely be spies.

Amsterdam may not reach the lofty heights of American Hustle, but it is similarly a lot of fun, as it bounces us around murder mystery and political conspiracy in the oft-forgotten period between the two World Wars. Once again, Russell draws great performances across the board, as he fills even minor roles in interesting ways, casting Michael Shannon and Mike Myers as spies, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as detectives, Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek as a well-to-do couple, Chris Rock and Zoe Saldaña as colleagues, and Andrea Riseborough as Burt's ex(?)-wife. Everyone here seems to take delight in getting to play a nuanced character in a smart adult drama, the kind that few make anymore and none make as well as Russell.

The colorful characters and their complicated connections do ultimately upstage the convoluted plot a bit, but the former are so good that it's tough to mind. The one weak spot in the cast is Washington, who underplays his character to an almost baffling degree. As a result, the sparkless romance between Harold and Valerie is difficult to buy, but it's not something the movie lingers on, preferring to explore the three friends dynamic that inevitably reminds one of Bale, Adams, and Bradley Cooper's Hustle trio. With no perms, disco, put-upon accents, and love triangle, Amsterdam does not have the same arresting quality that defined that '70s-set caper, but it effortlessly sustains our interest and with its own eccentric arsenal of shrapnel art, a sometimes uncooperative glass eyeball, and potent pain-relieving eye drops.

Russell is a master at mining human foibles and high-stakes interactions for both entertainment and emotion. It helps that the director's repeat editor Jay Cassidy is among those reuniting with him here, guiding us playfully yet confidently through what could be a choppy presentation. One also sees this as the potential start of a fruitful collaboration between Russell and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Renowned for his work with Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men), Alejandro Gonzalo Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant), and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Lubezki injects the proceedings with artistry and vitality, which truly distinguishes this from the handful of other very good movies this year has given us.

It pains me to see that early sentiment towards Amsterdam is quite negative because it's been one of my most anticipated movies the past two years, and even with those heightened expectations, it did not disappoint. Bale, also one of five producers here, has a knack for picking strong projects and then elevating them with his commitment to developing his character. Think of how much better movies like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Adam McKay's Vice and The Big Short, and James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari are because Bale is in them. So great is the actor's body of work that it's kind of crazy he only has the one well-deserved Oscar he won for The Fighter. His turn in Amsterdam, so different from his previous glass-eyed oddball and any other characters he's played, undoubtedly ranks among the most compelling of the year, but it won't be recognized as such without this movie gaining enough moviegoer traction to combat critical backlash and get an agency to mount a campaign in the face of Internet-level controversy. Since that won't happen, this will break the three-for-three streak of Oscar nominations Bale drew from his Russell films.

Even without Oscar attention, Amsterdam is a cinematic feast you'll be surprised has been sold short by the same critics who have inexplicably exalted Smile and The Woman King this fall.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: See How They RunBrosSmileDon't Worry DarlingThe Good House
Directed by David O. Russell: American HustleSilver Linings PlaybookThe FighterJoy
Christian Bale: ViceThe Big Short | Margot Robbie: The Wolf of Wall Street | John David Washington: BlacKkKlansmanThe Old Man & the Gun

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Reviewed October 5, 2022.



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