REVIEW: ‘Amsterdam’ collapses as plot becomes convoluted

Director David O. Russell’s latest film shows he still hasn’t managed to recapture the spark that he had with 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”

In O. Russell’s new feature, which he also wrote, Christian Bale stars as Burt Berendsen. A veteran of World War I where he lost an eye, Burt is a doctor working in New York City, where he often crosses paths with friend and lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington).

The movie picks up with the two men being hired by a woman to investigate the mysterious death of her father. Things go wrong, though, when the woman dies and they are framed for her murder. To clear their name, they start an investigation into what’s going on, and get help from a woman named Valerie (Margot Robbie), who they met in Europe during WWI.

“Amsterdam” is a film that starts off with legitimate promise. The two lead characters introduced early on seem both interesting and charismatic, there’s intrigue as to why they’re hired and the murder launches a compelling mystery.

The movie then has an extended flashback where the viewer learns more about the main characters, as well as the third lead in Valerie. When the trio reunite in the New York area in the second act, it seems like a fun adventure is set to unfold.

Then, suddenly, the movie bites off way more than it can chew. It turns out what the lead trio are investigating is connected to what’s known as the Business Plot.

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Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

The scheme was organized by wealthy business owners to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 30s and install a new leader with a fascist system. There are two major problems with O. Russell including that true tale in “Amsterdam.”

First and foremost, it’s an amazing true story in our nation’s history that deserves its own movie. It could make an epic political thriller, up there with the likes of “JFK,” “All the President’s Men” and “Argo.” It merits more than just being the second half of a whodunit.

That leads to the second point. For half of its runtime, “Amsterdam” is a more light hearted murder mystery with a trio of friends coming back together after a long hiatus. There’s some suspense of course, but the tone is more on the humorous side as the characters are rather quirky.

Then, the film’s straightforward plot centered around solving the murder of a young woman is blown out of proportion into a grand conspiracy, pushing the narrative structure past its limits. It also means that these quirky characters are now dealing with topics like facism, while Nazi Germany is being previewed like a stinger at the end of a Marvel movie.

It’s a shame, too, because things were going alright with “Amsterdam.” Aside from a rather unnecessary narration, Bale’s performance as Burt had a sort of aloof investigator energy that works well for these types of movies.

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Washington, meanwhile, was on point as the more grounded of the two men in the group. His character is the type who’s cool under pressure and has a swagger about him, and Washington captures that nicely.

As usual, Margot Robbie is also great on screen. Valerie has sort of a free spirit energy while also being the type of peron who takes charge, and Robbie makes these aspects come to life.

The supporting cast is also fine in the movie, even if some of their characters aren’t too memorable. Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Robert De Niro and Rami Malek add texture to the film thanks to their overall screen presence and abilities, but their characters themselves are often one dimensional.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of “Amsterdam” is how it looks. The 1930s are brought to life quite well. Plenty of credit has to go to three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for the visual identity, but the production design deserves praise, too.

While “Amsterdam” is an improvement over O. Russell’s previous feature, 2015’s “Joy,” it still feels like a big missed opportunity. There’s plenty of talent in front of and behind the camera with this one, making it a watchable movie, but it is held far back because of the creative decisions. 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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