Amsterdam review – A top-notch set of pieces make for a forgettable whole

Amsterdam review – A top-notch set of pieces make for a forgettable whole

I’m not gonna get wrapped up in writing about David O. Russell as a person. There are plenty of other writers who are interested in those kinds of things, and who can very likely say something more thoughtful about it than I ever will, so I’ll leave that up to them. My position is and always has been that my concern is solely for the movie itself. There’s nothing wrong with the other approach — I’d even say it’s necessary — but it ain’t me and that’s that.

Alright, here goes.

To put it as simply as possible, Amsterdam is a largely forgettable movie filled with great actors doing fun things. It’s on the lower end of Russell’s filmography in terms of memorability, but is handled with such a light, circusy touch that it’s not a bad way to kill a few hours.

Our story follows — scratch that — jumps around a trio of friends: Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), Valerie Vose (Margot Robbie), and Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who met when Valerie nursed the men back to health after they suffered injuries serving together in World War I. Once healed, the fast friends join forces in Amsterdam to help other wounded warriors rebuild physically and mentally. It’s a good gig overall, but not long after they get it going, Burt must return home to the states to be with his wife (Andrea Riseborough), whose family sent him to war in the first place on account of how much they don’t like him. It’s a heartbreaking split for our heroes, but before long they are reunited…by MURDER! No, none of them are killed, nor do they kill anyone, but Burt and Harold witness a murder and are immediately blamed for it by the authorities.

In a bid to clear their names, a bunch of misadventures occur and they encounter malevolent powers greater than they could have ever expected. I’d give you more details, but honestly, I forget. This movie went in one ear and out the other, providing some light entertainment in the interim.

This is due to the unfocused nature of the film, which seems to want to coast on star power — a valid idea given the names attached. Alas, it’s not quite enough to give it any staying power. By the end of the film we are presented with the bullet points of a historical lesson, but one that doesn’t quite connect to the main story as well as it wants to. The idea here is to use a real world event (would be a spoiler, so I wont say) as a backdrop for a freewheeling comedy, with our heroes unknowingly stumbling into a conspiracy, playing out like a noir, but in full color. Where Amsterdam succeeds is in finding ways to individually motivate the characters so they naturally fall into each plot beat. Where it fails is in making the viewer care about the characters enough to be compelled.

Our trio of protagonists are remarkably cartoonish, sitting on the line between a Coen brothers comedy and Laugh-In, but the stars embodying them make it work. They’re quite fun to be around, even if I had to google the character names to write this review. All pale in comparison, however, to Alessandro Nivola as Detective Hiltz, a cop with a chip on his shoulder regarding his flat feet. He was unable to fight in the war as a result, and behaves as if he has something to prove, and given the way people treat him, he does. Every line out of his mouth is a bona fide gut-buster. Nivola never fails.

On a technical level Amsterdam is a treat. The period detail is stunning, mixing green-screen backdrops and practical sets to great effect, and filling it with thoroughly designed, gorgeous costumes. The production design is aces, purposefully clashing with the heightened look of the characters (Christian Bale could be a Crash Bandicoot villain). This all works to transport the viewer to another time and place, while also driving home the idea that no one on the planet is “normal” — that “normal” is an agreed upon myth.

Where the film lands plot-wise is not notable, but thematically there’s a lot to enjoy (and also to roll your eyes at). There’s a message of love, openness, and kindness that, although only half-earned by the picture, is rather sweet. Amsterdam has a softer touch than Russell’s previous work, which is nice, but that also may be why it’s so easy to forget.

Directed by David O. Russell

Written by David O. Russell

Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Alessandro Nivola

Rated R, 134 minutes

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