From the mind of director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), Amsterdam is a dark comedy whodunnit in which three close friends originally brought together by the aftermath of WW1 suddenly find themselves implicated in a brutal murder in 1933 New York, and in their efforts to clear their names they are drawn ever deeper into an even more insidious and far-reaching plot.
Set in both the film’s titular city in the dying months of the war and New York during The Great Depression, the film not only features a star-studded, ensemble cast headlined by the likes of John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy and Taylor Swift, but also reunites director Russell with lead actor Christian Bale and supporting actor Robert De Niro for the third and fourth time, respectively.
Bale plays as Burt Berendsen, a war vet doctor whose bravery on the battlefield in France left him with a prosthetic eye, countless scars, a back brace and debilitating pain that’s only partly alleviated by his dependency on and addiction to pharmaceuticals (both FDA-approved and highly illegal experiments of his own invention).
Burt’s shrapnel injuries however link him to the two most important friends he’s ever had in the entire world: Harold Woodsman (Washington), a Black lawyer and former soldier from the same 369th New York regiment that Burt served in, and Valerie (Robbie), the French-speaking nurse who painstakingly pulled out every fragment of shrapnel from both of them.
The strong bond that formed between the three of them during Burt and Harold’s convalescence prompted them to form a pact to look out for one another “no matter what” and move together to Amsterdam to live an idyllic, Bohemian lifestyle, but it all came to an end when Burt dutifully chose to return to his wife and his languishing medical practice back in New York.
Ultimately, the trio are brought together by fate once again when Harold sends an urgent request that sets off a chain of events that sees both Burt and Harold wrongly accused of murder and on the run, and their search to discover why they were framed eventually leads them to Valerie’s door. Once reunited, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret Burt and Harold have uncovered goes far deeper and wider than anyone could’ve imagined.
A great strength of David O. Russell’s films has always been their colourful, off-beat and unconventional characters, and this absolutely holds true for Amsterdam. Christian Bale in particular, who’s already demonstrated both a passion and unparalleled knack for portraying vulnerable, flawed and even broken characters in Russell’s films The Fighter and American Hustle is perfectly cast as Burt, as the role allows Bale to explore his comedic side to an extent that I haven’t seen in ages. What’s truly compelling about Burt as a character is his ability to remain joyfully optimistic and enthusiastic in spite of his many demons, including his war trauma and the emotional neglect he suffers from his marriage. Bale’s performance is easily one of the best reasons to go see Amsterdam.
If Christian Bale’s Burt can be considered the comedic lead of Amsterdam, then John David Washington’s Harold is its straight man, a fierce, stoic protector of Burt and Valerie in moments of danger, but also a well of emotional support and advice as he tries to convince his old friend that it isn’t too late to find true love, like the kind he shares with Valerie.
Meanwhile, Margot Robbie’s Valerie is a radiant, electric storm of positive energy and creativity (expressed through song, dance, sculpture art and photography), and serves as a constant, irresistible driving force that pulls Burt and Harold forward. Even as the trio work together to get to the bottom of the film’s bizarre mystery, Valerie’s free-spirited aura makes it impossible for either of the two men to fully escape the orbit of what they once had in Amsterdam. The chemistry between the actors is simply infectious, and to the Amsterdam’s credit I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for our protagonists to succeed for that reason alone.
Having said all that, here’s my big problem with Amsterdam. It’s a film with almost ZERO conflict. Whereas challenges and gatekeepers in most stories present obstacles that protagonists must overcome to progress the story, which in turn leads to conflict and hence drama, in the case of Amsterdam, all it takes is a magic word, like to name-drop a particular person, a keyword, the leveraging of a coincidental relationship, or even a few sung verses from a “nonsense song”.
Upon hearing the magic word, adversaries politely step aside and allow our protagonists to pass, and will often give them a lead that points them toward the next person they need to meet or the next place they should go. It feels all too easy and reminded me of my experience of watching The Mummy Returns, where the only purpose of each ridiculous, over-the-top set piece was to provide the hapless heroes with a clue that’d take them to the next place on the map.
“…Amsterdam is a charming and entertaining romp of period piece film…”
What’s stranger still about Amsterdam is that as our heroes close in on the secret to the conspiracy that has entangled them, there’s ironically even less friction. Little effort is made on the part of their enemies in the third act to silence them, and when the antagonists do resort to violence they do clumsily and irrationally, lacking the menacing threat they possessed at the film’s opening. In fact, by the time the conspiracy is laid bare at the climax, the antagonists come off looking oddly resigned to whatever happens, regardless of whether the outcome unfolds in their favour (spoiler: it doesn’t).
I’m just spit-balling here, but it seems that David O. Russell and Christian Bale simply love all the characters of the film a little too much. Very few of them can be considered completely detestable, some antagonists have redeeming qualities, and even the card-carrying villains come off as humorous and charming. In any event, Amsterdam feels like a passion project that politely flexes the star power of its attractive cast for two hours and fifteen minutes, rather than telling a story that has important things to say.
On that topic, the writing is far from Russell’s best, with many lines, comic bits and intended thematic references to future events sounding repetitive and silly when coming out of characters’ mouths. On the bright side, I was never lost as to what the protagonists were doing or where they were going next because the dialogue was often so redundant and emphasized repeated keywords so frequently that they were impossible to miss.
I could easily see a future where a better written, slightly darker version of this Amsterdam exists, where instead of just touching on the plight of veterans, war trauma, addiction and mental illness, the film could’ve explored it more deeply, either through Burt or perhaps one of the film’s woefully underused characters, such as Chris Rock’s Milton King, another friend of Burt and Harold who fought and took shrapnel together with them in the 369th.
I could see a version of Amsterdam where Harold the lawyer actually does some lawyering for the fellow veterans he has sworn to help. And most importantly, I’d like to have seen the film actually challenge its heroes and make them work much harder for their happy ending. Without question, Amsterdam is a charming and entertaining romp of period piece film, but its overwhelming star power gets in the way of its potential.