Amsterdam (2022) Review
AN EXHAUSTING, LACKLUSTER,
AND MESSY ENDEAVOR
Movie projects have always attracted the attention of actors and actresses alike in the lead roles, with a plethora of strong acting talent being able (and capable) of carrying the feature on his / her shoulders. That being said, when it comes to a director massing a collective grouping of acting talents for their cast, it only creates a lot more buzz and excitement for the upcoming project. Of course, one of the more intriguing aspects of this notion comes in the form of getting recognizable / A-lister talent involved on this project to share the screen time with each other, which (in turn) gives the studio the opportunity to help generate hype and / or anticipation for the movie’s release by promising such actors attached to the project. However, there have been several times where putting together a large and recognizable cast on the screen doesn’t lead (or ends up) with a “good film”, which such prime examples being 2007’s Southland Tales, 2013’s Movie 43, 2014’s Monuments Men, 2016’s Collateral Beauty, and 2019’s Cats, On the flip side, some directors and filmmakers have manage to use an ensemble cast of talent to the feature’s advantage that capitalizes on both the critical and commercial success of the motion picture. This includes movies like 1994’s Pulp Fiction, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, 2001’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven, 2006’s The Departed, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and 2021’s Dune just to name a few. Now, and director David O. Russell present the latest large ensemble cast in a feature film with the movie Amsterdam. Does this movie find its rhythm and creates a genuine classic mystery capper story or does it squander its exceptional acting talent on this messy motion picture?
Set in the 1930s, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a war veteran doctor that is working with fellow veterans of the first World War to help cover facial disfigurements, dealing with his own personal scars and glass eye as well. He’s soon reunited with Harold Woodman, (John David Washington), a lawyer and good friend / fellow soldier from his regiment, with the men hired by one Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) to perform an autopsy on her father, Bill (Ed Begley Jr.), who was the men’s superior officer during the war. An examination of the body reveals a slow poisoning has occurred, which implicates foul play on Meekins’s death, but before Burt and Harold are able to share such findings with Bill’s daughter, she pushed under a moving truck, with a hired hitman Tarim Milfax (Timothy Olyphant) framing the vets for the crime. Pursed by the law and questioned by detectives Lem Getwille (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Hiltz (Alessandro Nivola), Burt and Harold to clear their name and uncover the truth behind Meekins’s death, inspiring an unexpected reunion with Valerie Bandenberg (Margot Robbie), a woman the pair met in Amsterdam while recovering from their combat injuries. However, as the men follow the clues, they untangled a plot that seeks to topple the government and deals; something that is more profound than the death of Bill Meekins.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
This was a very interesting opening topic to talk about. As mentioned above, it is always quite unique and intriguing to see one or two acting talents involved on a film project and see how much they actually “carry” a feature on their shoulders / back. It’s a true testament to the actors involvement and the range. That being said, it far more interesting to see a large ensemble cast come together to play a part of a larger narrative, with various characters (both major and supporting players) spread out in the film’s narrative and interacting with each other. It’s a tried and true “old trick” from Hollywood in having many famous / recognizable acting talents attached to a single movie and helps build upon the feature’s marketing campaign. Of course, that is a given, but (for me at least) it get me excited to see such an assemblage of familiar names and faces participate in a movie, which aides in the anticipation to catch the film when it gets released. Of course, as mentioned above, this idea can certainly backfire (and has), with such promise of well-known cast can’t carry a weak and / or undeveloped feature film. Movies like Collateral Beauty, Cats, and Movie 43 are some of my personal examples that I felt that the feature itself was bad and mismanaged, despite having a great cast of talented individuals involved on said project. The flip side, however, is that sometimes a great cast and certainly be beneficial to the movie, with a such a good camaraderie amongst the stars that makes the character so much fun to watch on-screen. This can be clearly seeing in movies like Ocean’s Eleven, The Departed, Dune, and several others. In a nutshell, while there is no “winning formula” of having a large and recognizable cast attached to a movie, it sure does bring a sense of excitement and anticipation for the upcoming feature.
This brings me back to talking about Amsterdam, a 2022 period piece mystery capper and the latest film that aims to have a sprawling recognizable cast of familiar acting talent on the project. To be honest, I really can’t recall much about this particular movie when it was first announced. I think I do remember reading up that director David O. Russell’s latest movie was going to be titled Amsterdam and was going to be released on October 7th, 2022 (was originally going to be released on November 4th, 2022, but was moved due to coinciding being released with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever). Over the summertime, I do remember seeing the film’s movie trailer begin to appear online. Interestingly, I don’t recall seeing the trailer during the “coming attractions” preview when I went out to my local movie theater and only caught the preview online only. A bit bizarre, in my opinion. Anyways, the trailer itself looked quite interesting and certainly showcased a plethora of acting talent involved on this project, including Bale, Washington, Robbie, Rock, Malek, Shannon and several others. It looked like quite the top-notch cast for a movie and, given Russell’s track record, looked to be a surefire “big hit” during the theatrical run…. with possible track during the upcoming award season. Unfortunately, do to my busy work schedule during the time of its release, I didn’t get the chance to see this movie during its theatrical run. That being said, I did remember reading some reviews for the movie, with majority of the critics / moviegoers having a general negative response to the movie. This sort of got me a bit intrigued now to see the film. Thus, I did was able to catch the movie when it was released for VOD (video on demand) a few months after its theatrical release. However, due to my workload during the 2022 holiday season (and post-holiday season), my “free time” to getting several movie reviews done and completely took a bit longer than expected. So, after playing some “catch up” with some of them….I am finally ready to share my thoughts on the movie Amsterdam. And what did I think of it? Well, unfortunately, I found to be underwhelming all the way around. Despite the star-studded cast and a good production presentation quality, Amsterdam is a haphazard and uneven period piece capper that fails to connect with its story and character. There is an ambition to the project, but it is rather dull and boring one.
As mentioned, Amsterdam is directed by David O. Russell, whose previous directorial works include such films like The Fighter, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook. Given the knowledge of his past endeavors of working with well-known acting talents (both individuals and collectively in a group), Russell seems “right at home” with such a project like Amsterdam, which promotes a large roster of recognizable actors and actresses; something that is customary for his work. On paper and within its setup / build up, Amsterdam does get some stuff right, with the movie project a classic murder mystery capper that feels sort of like the “old school” feeling. It’s kind of hard to say, but Russell does a good job in somewhat layering the story from just being a murder mystery to something larger. He does bite off more than the movie can chew, but, for better or worse, Amsterdam has the intangible touch of 30s style capper nuances throughout the entire endeavor. It’s clever in a few areas, humorous in others, and is first and foremost…. a character piece. This, of course, means that Russell utilizes his acting talent to do a lot of the film’s heavier lifting parts rather than his directing or a complexed narrative story. This is a staple of his movies, with each of his films being more character driven than plot driven. To that end, Russell does amass a pretty large and collaborate cast of acting talent to do such that. That being said, it sort of backfires (more on that below).
For all its faults and problematic areas that the movie has, Amsterdam’s shining beacon of hope comes in the form of its presentation, which is quite good and helps build upon the appropriate time period / setting for the film. To be honest, this was probably the best thing about the feature in its entirety. From the level of detail of various set layout and production builds to costume wardrobe attire and hair / make-up, the film’s visual flair and aesthetics dazzle and sparkle when on-screen, which helps continue to make the feature’s time period setting of the 1930s era of the US. Russell doesn’t “romance” this particular era with vibrant color palette of everything sparkling “new”, with Amsterdam’s depiction of the 20th century life and times. It’s that “oh so” classic appeal of the 30s, with automobiles that are big and bulk, people are finely dressed (i.e., men in suits and women in some type of dresses), the streets are lively with people…. both bystanders and mischievous individuals, and interior dwellings are detailed with appropriate glamour or dread (depending on the setting). Again, it all feels very genuine, and I really do think that the movie truly does nail is production design and visual representation of the film’s setting. Thus, the movie’s “behind the scenes” key players, including Danielle Osborne and Alexander Wei (art direction), Judy Becker (production design), Patricia Cuccia and Erin Fite (set decorations), and J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky (costume designs) should be commended for their efforts made on the film’s presentation. In addition, I felt that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki did a pretty good job in the film and helps generates of a few slick / clever cinematic moments in and around the film’s plot. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Daniel Pemberton, is quite “spot on” with the film’s background music helps build upon the feature’s time period and is (of course) a solid musical composition from beginning to end. It’s not the absolute best, but it served its purpose and got the job done and I do give big kudos to Pemberton’s work on Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, Amsterdam is far from a perfect movie, with a plethora of points of criticism that puncture the feature from onset to conclusion. Where to begin? Well, for starters, the movie itself is rather convoluted and gets lost within its own narrative story. As mentioned, the movie certainly tries to present a multi-layered story and what starts out with a murder investigation becomes more of a conspiracy theory that plans to topple the government. While that may be something profound narrative (and certainly can be if done right), Russell struggles to find a proper balance in both character and story throughout the feature’s script, which results in a very thinly sketched plot progression that seems too complexed. Don’t get me wrong…. I do love a good, complexed narrative, especially when it all comes together in the end, but what Russell does within Amsterdam’s story feels too convoluted for its own good. Narrative threads are interwoven, but have difficult connecting cohesively, secondary characters that are introduced are interesting, but are menial to the overarching story, and larger plot points are interesting, but never bare the fruit of truly importance. In fact, the movie is quite messy when it wants to tell its main narrative point, with Russell charting a course that meanders through such wonky decisions in a very lackadaisical (and quirky) manner that it loses focuses on times in the movie and (most likely) in a viewer’s attention. It sure did for me.
Coinciding with this notion, the movie itself is rather quirky in my opinion. I know that sounds more of a personal criticism than a general concise opinion, but there’s no way around saying it in a rather nice way. Yes, quirky feature films definitely speak to a certain type of viewer and dances the beat of their own drum in how the storytelling is presented in the movie. However, Russell treads too much into the eccentric and idiosyncratic of the feature and makes a lot of Amsterdam feel too cheesy and too wonky, especially when it tries to be more heavy hitting during its more dramatic / poignant moments. I know that Russell has been known for making “quirky” movies and / or main characters, but Amsterdam seems a bit too excessive in trying to be eccentric throughout all of its characters (both major and supporting players).
This also brings up in talking about the feature’s pacing, which is very lopsided right from the get-go. To be fair, historical period piece films do tend to be a bit “slower pace” than some contemporary pieces; allowing the movie to somewhat “soak” the film’s time period / setting in a few areas. Unfortunately, Amsterdam sort of backfires in that regard, with much of the feature being particular slow in how it unfolds events and scenes throughout. With the movie clocking at 134 minutes (two hours and fourteen minutes), it’s quite long endeavor to endure (and to sit through), with the movie having pacing issues and make the whole viewing experience a bit of slog and uneven feature. Adding to the particular notion is that the movie somewhat boring to watch. Yes, one can argue that the movie does have a layered narrative that Russell (and the acting talent involved) make a gesture in bring to life this story. That being said, the movie itself is riddled with blandness and brings down the supposedly “thrills” and “excitement” of the whole project. The stakes, while high in its entanglement and webbing intrigue, are rather wooden and the engagement level for the movie is rather low. Thus, despite the narrative that Russell wants to say / convey in the film, Amsterdam is, for a lack of a better word, boring.
I’ll mention more of this below, but I do have to say that the movie’s characters are also problematic throughout the movie’s plot, which is somewhat peculiar since the film is marketed to have such promising acting talent playing such roles. Unfortunately, the writing suffers in this category, which (again) falls to Russell’s script. As mentioned, the movie is a lopsided in what it wants to say about the narrative and the character therein, with Amsterdam feeling like its only “skimming the surface” on such understands of these individuals and in his own story. The writing itself only suffers in this category. I wouldn’t say that is poorly written or deplorable, but it’s rather quite dull and (again) plays up several moments of the inane and eccentric character traits. Plus, in a nutshell, the overall progression of the story itself found in Amsterdam is rather perplexed (as examined earlier of the plot being convoluted), with the Russell’s script trying desperately to being clever and witty, yet finding gaping holes and fragmented chunks littered throughout, which makes the movie’s narrative (and dialogue lines) rather confusing and uninteresting as a whole.
As a minor complaint that I had with this movie would be the film’s actually namesake…. Amsterdam. Why is this a small point of criticism? Well, it’s because the actual place of Amsterdam (and its importance in the narrative) is just briefly mentioned in the movie’s story. Yes, there is mentioned of its significance to the main trio of characters, yet it feels like something that is glossed over and doesn’t really play a part in the main plot as much. For any gamers out there, it’s kind of like the Kingdom Hearts series, with a main focal point that’s supposed to be the driven force of the narrative yet feels barely connected / plays a part of the larger plot. I know that this is a minor complaint, but I thought that the actual place of Amsterdam would play a more prominent role in the film rather than just being shown in a quick montage reel.
The cast in Amsterdam was definitely one of the big draws for the film, with a sprawling cast of recognizable actors and actresses attached to this project and playing the various characters that come in and out of the feature. Unfortunately, these acting talents, while recognizable and have proven to perform well in their own personal past role endeavors, are terribly underutilized in this movie, lack focus in understanding what there characters are (i.e. who they are) and…just basically….wonky and uninteresting characters that act more like one-dimensional caricatures. Perhaps the best example of this would be the film’s three main characters….Burt Berendsen, Harold Woodman, and Valerie Bandenberg, who are played by actors Christian Bale and John David Washington and actress Margot Robbie. For his sum parts, Bale, who is known for his roles in Ford v Ferrari, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight trilogy, does a somewhat decent job in playing his character. Well, I rather should say that Bale does a decent job in playing up the inane quirks in his portrayal of Burt and is fully committed to such a performance from start to finish. Yes, the character is interesting (probably the most interesting one of the main trio lead roles) and has the most story development in the feature, but it comes off as a bit goofy at times and not as impactful (as a character) than both Bale nor Russell make him out to be. Bale does try elevate the character to have some type of humor throughout his screen time, but it is hardly Bale’s best character performance of his career.
Washington, who is known for his roles in BlackKklansman, Ballers, and Tenet, plays the character of Harold with enough cool and suave persona (something that Washington has been known for playing up), which make him an amusing character. That being said, there isn’t much to his character and he’s mostly there to bounce off ideas / dialogue lines from Bale’s Burt and Robbie’s Valerie. I do like Washington as an actor, but this is easily one of his most forgettable performance of his career. Lastly, Robbie, who is known for her roles in Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey, and I, Tonya, shows somewhat of promise in the movie as Valerie, but (much like her male co-stars) is sort of muddled as to how to play such a character. There is a little bit of depth in how her character is written in the movie, but Russell only “skims the surface” on such matters, which makes her sort of clunky throughout. Thus, Robbie only has little substance to make her character entertaining, which is mostly made up of the actress’s nuances in her performance. Plus, it’s quite easy to see that the material presented for her character is rather underdeveloped and has fragmented pieces throughout the presentation.
The next grouping of characters is several of the supporting players in the feature and have larger to minor roles in the film. This includes actor Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody and No Time to Die) as Valerie’s rich brother Tom Voze, actress Anya Taylor-Joy (The Menu and Emma.) as Tom’s wife / Valerie’s sister-in law Libby Voze, comedian / actor Chris Rock (Madagascar and Spiral) as Burt and Harold’s army buddy companion Milton King, actress Andrea Riseborough (The Grudge and Mandy) as Tom’s estranged wife Beatrice Vandenheuvel, actors Matthias Schoenaerts (The Danish Girl and Red Sparrow) and Alessandro Nivola (Face / Off and The Many Saints of Newark) as detectives Lem Getwiller and Hiltz, actors Michael Shannon (Man of Steel and Boardwalk Empire) and Mike Meyers (Shrek and Wayne’s World) as US Naval intelligence Henry Norcross and MI6 spy Paul Canterbury, who are working together to help take down a fascist plot in the movie, and actor Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) as army veteran General Gil Dillenbeck (based on Marine Corps General Smedley Butler). All of these players are given “character roles” in the movie, with mostly usually playing up their character one trait (i.e. general, detectives, socialite wife, wealthy man, etc.) with inane quirks and ticks. Yet, despite those performance nuances, most of these characters come up very flat. Yes, of course, some have a bit more “fun” in their respective roles than others (Shannon and Meyers mostly), but it’s really disappointing to see all of these assembled acting talents play such bland roles in such bland characters. Heck, most of these actors and actresses in this group kind of lack the guile and / or understanding of what “who” their characters are and the importance in the movie. It’s clear from a lot of the vanilla and weak performances that is given. Such a shame!
Perhaps the weakest characters in the movie are several of them who don’t have much screen-time in the feature and come off as one-dimensional construct caricatures, despite being played by well-recognizable acting talents. This includes pop singer / actress Taylor Swift (Cats and The Giver) as the daughter of Bill Meekins Elizabeth, actor Timothy Olyphant (Justified and Deadwood) as the hitman / murder Tarim Milfax, and actress Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar: The Way of Water) as medical examiner Irma St. Clair. These three characters are played by well-known talents (and having achieved memorable performances / roles throughout their career), but are written in way that seems very clunky and mismanaged in their representation of the feature. These characters, though important to some degree in Amsterdam’s narrative, are woefully underdeveloped and have extremely limited screen-time; resulting in such weak characters and underutilized the talent that plays them.
The rest of the cast, including actor Ed Begley Jr. (A Mighty Wind and Whatever Works) as US Senator and served as a commander under Bert and Harold’s regiment Bill Meekins, actress Beth Grant (Donnie Darko and Speed) as Mrs. Dillenbeck, actor Casey Biggs (The Pelican Brief and Broken Arrow) as Beatrice’s father / Burt’s father-in-law August Vandenheuvel, actress Dey Young (Melrose Place and Last Chance Love) as Beatrice’s mother / Burt’s mother-in-law Alvelia Vandenheuvel, actress Colleen Camp (Clue and Die Hard with a Vengeance) as Eva Ott, actor Leland Orser (The Bone Collector and Alien: Resurrection) as Mr. Nevins, actor Tom Irwin (My So-Called Life and My Life and Times) as Mr. Belport, actor David Babbitt (Ford v Ferrari and Vice) as Mr. Jeffers, actor Christopher Gehrman (Ginny on the Rocks and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) as Maguire, actor Max Perlich (Cliffhanger and Beautiful Girls) as Morty Baum, and actress Bonnie Hellman (A Girl Named Jo and Get Smart) as Shirley Pratt, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the film. As to be expected, most of these characters are limited by design, so they only have one or two scenes (a few have several more) in the feature. Although, I really didn’t have much problem with their performances, so it kind of breaks even for me…. just there for minor players in Amsterdam’s story.
To help clear their name as well as solve the murder of their dear friend, war veterans Burt Berendsen and Harold Woodman follow the clues and uncover a plot that goes beyond them in the movie Amsterdam. Director David O. Russell’s latest film takes the classic period mystery caper angle in framing a feature that is littered with dubious clues, masterminding individuals, and a larger scheme at work. Indeed, the movie definitely has all the right pieces, including a terrific production / presentation layout as well as a great star-studded cast. Unfortunately, the rest of the film squanders all of its potential with a rather hollow endeavor, which is due to Russell’s peculiar direction, a convoluted plot, a weak script, wonky written dialogue, a bland third act, too many unmemorable / uninteresting characters, and the utter waste of several credible acting talents involved on this project. Personally, I was disappointed with movie. While the feature does show a few signs of promise in a few spots, a great majority of the film felt too haphazardly put together, lackadaisical in its pacing, convoluted in its storytelling, too underwhelming (and mismanaged) within the cast. It was almost a bit painful to watch and doesn’t really amount to much, which is gravely disappointing. Thus, my recommendation for this movie would be a highly unfavorable “skip it” as there really isn’t much to see in the movie beyond seeing the acting talent involved. Even on that note, the cast for the feature is far better (characters and performances) in other past projects than in this one. So, best watch those films than this feature. In the end, Amsterdam has good ambitions for a star-studded cast for a murder mystery caper, but woefully misses its mark and ends up being an exhausting, lackluster, and messy endeavor.
1.6 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: October 7th, 2022
Reviewed On: February 1st, 2023
Amsterdam is 134 minutes long and is rated R for brief violence and bloody images