Get Lost in Europe
David O. Russell is a director whose name, at least for a while there, held some clout within Hollywood. He was the kind of director who's name was put front and center on a movie poster as a way to get audiences interested in a film. "A David O. Russell film." I doubt most people could name all of his movies (and it's not like he had that many) but they likely knew his name and assumed, "hey, this name means quality." There are reasons his name has fallen off, including a sexual assault case brought against him by his own niece, but he does still get work in Hollywood for some reason.
I have to admit I can't think of a single movie from the director I really like. I certainly could name a couple off the top of my head without having to see a list, and I've seen more than a few of his films over the years, but "seeing" and "liking" are two different things. I think my big issue with a David O. Russell film is that, end of the day, you've basically seen all the director has to say with one work that you really don't have to watch any of his others. He has a specific style he goes for and either that's going to click with you or not, end of story.
I didn't really pay attention to who the director was when I went into Amsterdam. I had just heard that the film cost an absolutely boodle to make ($80 Mil for a 1920s set period piece) and managed to lost about $50 Mil at the Box Office. A bomb like that has to be experienced just so you can see what happened. How did Hollywood manage to bet big and lose so much on a theatrical boondoggle. The best I can say is that this film is like so many other David O. Russell productions:; tired, bloated, and so caught up in trying to make itself laugh that it fails to be amusing to anyone else. This is an overly long production high on its own supply and, if we're lucky, it might just spell the end of Russell's career as a director. Studios tend to hate shoving bad money after good, especially with a director whose track record has a giant bump in it.
The film focuses on three friends: Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), attorney Harold Woodman (John David Washington), and former nurse Valerie Bandenberg (Margot Robbie). Years before the main events of the film, Berendsen and Woodman served together in the Great War, becoming fast friends. They were both injured in an explosion and ended up in a French hospital where they were attended to by Valerie. The three grew close, and for the next few months spent all their time together in Amsterdam. The good times end, though, when Burt feels guilty about staying over in Europe when he has a wife back in the States. He leaves, and Woodman comes with him, but they all promise to one day meet up together again in Amsterdam.
That doesn't happen, though, as they each get caught up in their own lives. Burt tries to get his own little practice together, serving veterans, while Woodman takes on cases in the Black community (while also working to keep his friend out of trouble). When Woodman has Burt perform an autopsy on a senator at the behest of the senator's daughter, they quickly get caught up in a case of life and death. Framed for a murder, and on the run, they discover that the whole case goes far beyond a simple death (or two) and could shake the very foundation of the United States. All they'll need is a little help getting attention to the case, and wouldn't you know it, Valerie arrives at just the right time to assist...
Like many David O. Russell films, most of which (like this movie) he's written and directed, Amsterdam has a lot going on in it. Multiple main characters, intertwining plot lines, B-plots, C-plots, D-plots and more. As the film goes on, the cast bloats, the plot lines become convoluted, and everything tangles up. You get the vibe that the writer / director thinks it's all coming together at a neat and tidy climax, but the actual end result feels anything but neat and tidy. By the time the film ends you're tired of everything and everyone in it; the only thing you really feel is relief that the film is over.
There are ways the film could have actually worked for its storyline, but that would have required a very different construction to the whole piece. For starters, at 134 minutes, there's easily 20 to 30 minutes that probably needed to be trimmed out. There's a lot of waffling back and forth between all the various cast members during the middle act, with people running back and forth between a couple of different locations, talking a lot but never actually accomplishing much. Tightening up the second act would have gone a lot way towards keeping audiences invested in the story. Keeping the audiences attention isn't this film's strong suit, but maybe it could have been.
I would also have ditched most of the story told during and after World War I. The flashback sets the relationship for the characters, but because it comes nearly thirty minutes into the film, we've already had long enough with Burt and Harry to know who they are and learn their relationship. All the flashback does is introduce Valerie, which could have been done a different way, and give us lots of shots of the characters staring into the camera saying, "Amsterdam" (which gets real obnoxious real fast). Losing the flashback would trim another good ten to fifteen minutes of the film, restore narrative momentum (which dies the second the film moves away from the murder mystery to do the flashback), and would continue to keep the audience invested. Again, the film needs our attention; the flashback doesn't help with that.
Frankly I might also look at recasting two of the leads. I like John David Washington and Margot Robbie, generally, but I feel like they're miscast in this film, Washington isn't ever really invested in this character (not like he was as the lead of BlacKkKlansman), acting like a void of a character when we needed someone strong to balance out Burt. Robbie, meanwhile, brings the wrong energy to Valerie, making her an awkward fit in this trio. I'm not sure what the actress was going for with her character, nor what Russell wanted, but what's on screen doesn't work at all.
The one cast member he does shine is Bale as Burt. He finds a deep, caring soul in this doctor, and he's also able to take on all the weird narrative twists and turns Russell throw at him. His acting in this film (as it is in so many movies) is superb. Frankly, without Bale in a lead role I likely would have turned this film off right around the time the flashback to Amsterdam happened. Instead, just because of his solid character work, I stuck through this shitty movie just because Bale was so good. He makes his part of the film watchable even if he can't carry the whole work on his own.
The flaw really lies with David O. Russell, a writer / director clearly high on his own supply. I don't really want to call most anyone a "hack" but I will say that this film feels like so many others of his movies and, that alone, feels pretty "hacky". He's a mid-talent director who won a few awards and got caught up in his own self worth. Think what you will about him as a man (and, for me, his transgressions identify him as a piece of shit in general) but when even a director's output is unwatchable you have to wonder why he continues getting work. Hopefully, maybe, this time Hollywood will notice and tell him to go kick rocks.