David O. Russell directed a sharp run of films at the turn of the 2010s. The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle back to back brought Russell over a dozen award nominations, including five Oscar nominations, and garnered several wins (though no Oscars). Then came 2015‘s Joy, which, while earning a Golden Globe nomination, was raked over the critical coals by most outfits as a misguided mess. Russell went into retreat and didn’t direct a film for seven years.
Enters Amsterdam. A historical farce mystery drama, the film features a typically Russell star-studded cast. The starring pair is Christian Bale and John David Washington, WWI vets who become entrenched in a mystery plot when a fellow vet mysteriously dies and they are asked to investigate by the victim’s daughter (Taylor Swift). In addition to the names already mentioned, this films features the various talents of Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Anya Taylor-Joy, Margot Robbie, and Robert De Niro. There are even more stars here, but need we go on?
Actors generally love to work with Russell (ignoring his history of on-set abuse towards some of his cast members) due to his focus on letting actors shine. Amsterdam is certainly a showcase of its massive ensemble’s talents, allowing the actors to flourish in scenes that cater to their particular strengths and giving each and every one some scenery to chew.
Therein lies part of the structural issue of Amsterdam. More of a collection of scenes (all of which have ample scenery chewing) than a dramatically-satisfying film, Amsterdam aims to be part 30s-screwball, part Tarantinoesque chaos, and part Coen Brothers spearing irony. Whereas the aforementioned influences use controlled chaos to generate joy and laughs while still keeping a tight rein to provide dramatic satisfaction, Amsterdam suggests that Russell has lost control of his storytelling tendencies, continuing the trend from Joy. He has perhaps lost the ability to funnel his ideas into something discernible and thought-provoking.
Amsterdam presents the idea of love and freedom of expression as values to cherish and enjoy. Mildly commenting on race and proto-fascist tendencies by taking place in pre-WWII America, the film attempts to lampoon the tendencies of the powerful and their desire to hold onto power. The film takes what was potentially a real-world event and comments on the silliness and convoluted nature of conspiracy, relying on clunky voiceover from Bale who narrates the themes of the film in a sort of Brooklyn accent.
This may seem oblique without the benefit of spoilers, but this belies the central issue of the film. Russell gets lost along the river of his chaotic storytelling, and by the time the film is half over we as an audience are lost as to the point of any of what we’ve seen — despite all the charming famous people reveling in their charm and fame. We suddenly arrive at a conclusion that wants to pose itself as a dramatic clash between values, but without these values being satisfyingly built up, Amsterdam crashes into a haphazard finish.