“A lot of this really happened,” announces the opening card in David O Russell’s Amsterdam, which is based on a nation’s past that clearly tries to mirror residues in our present. A part of American history when fascists tried to overthrow the government becomes a social satire with broken people trying to solve a conspiracy should turn into an intelligent and entertaining drama given it is David O Russell who is at the helm of things. Or so you believe. (Also read: Lady Chatterley’s Lover review: Emma Corrin leads a vacant Netflix adaptation)
The director has made a career out of starry ensembles that if nothing else, carve out a supremely engaging narrative fueled through razor-sharp observations on human behavior. Amsterdam, in many ways, resembles the same mould with which the director made his American Hustle (2013), another irrepressible drama that centred around a specific time in history, with the title card, “Some of this actually happened.” Yet, the writer-director churns out a conspiracy so lost in its own precious wizardry that the 134 minutes feel vacant, tedious and exhausting. Amsterdam casts so many famous people that it begins to harm the overwrought narrative and tends to constantly pause you out of the story.
The confusion does not stem from the fact that Amsterdam deals primarily through a chaotic chapter in the U.S. political history, but how the screenplay, co-written by Eric Singer cooks up a woke sense of cockiness through it all, determined to make its audience inclined towards the personal reveals of its idiosyncratic characters. The year is 1933 when we are first introduced to two old ex-veteran pals Burt Berensden (an out-of-breath Christian Bale) and Harold Woodsman (John David Washington, odd and overt) who witness the grisly murder of Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) and from thereon, become involved in a mystery that threatens to upend their lives.
Caught into this bizarreness is the artist Valerie (Margot Robbie, finely misused) who Burt and Harold saw in Amsterdam years ago- and which mainly forms the hedonistic, extended flashback the film firmly draws its steam from. Burt chooses to return to New York to be with wife Vandenheuvel (Andrea Riseborough, the only performance that truly sparkles in its limited spotlight), and from there on, Amsterdam returns to an elaborately messy aesthetic to compensate for the lack of sensation.
Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy also star in pivotal roles as the Voze couple, but their characters are so underwritten and empty that nothing of what they seem to conspire remotely evoke an interest. Even Robert de Niro as Gil Dilenbeck cannot compensate for the baffling attempt to slide past the important, and notable part of history to turn into an eccentric whodunit combined with its own rich aesthetic of visual design. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and production design by Judy Becker are pretty, but only lead to something of a longing for a lost narrative trying to compensate for its own wizardry.
Amsterdam is a disappointment of epic proportions, one that longs to make sense of the inevitable longing for a better life, the hallucinations of the past, and the devastation caused by war. At the end, Russell only passes to glide over the exposition to arrive at a salvation of sorts- one that feels nauseatingly stupid. The past years of utopic escapade are lost, and so is the case of Amsterdam pointing out for its longing.