Rarely have so many stars labored to so little effect as they do in “Amsterdam.”
Big names who headline their own movies took roles that give them almost nothing to do in the chaotic comedy, including Chris Rock, Michael Shannon and Alessandro Nivola. Some of the cameos leave an impression — Taylor Swift is lively and intriguing in a couple of scenes as a woman who asks the leads to investigate her father’s murder — but most vanish in a movie so enraptured with its own goofy accents and peculiar behaviors that it loses track of whatever it was supposed to be about. It’s like a recipe with a dozen great flavors that don’t mix well together.
It’s too bad, too, because a few individual scenes are entertaining. Some of the fast-talking dialogue is amusing (“You call your husband The General?”/ “Only on weekdays”) and Christian Bale, in particular, has fun with the Coen brothers-like intricacy of the language. Bales’ narration is almost nonstop so we get most of our info from the perspective of his Burt, a doctor who tries to help fellow World War I veterans with their lingering injuries and traumas. His best friends are Harold (John David Washington), also a vet, and Valerie (Margot Robbie), who is Harold’s girlfriend, although they can’t be open about that in the racist U.S. of the time.
Racism is one subject the movie has a tough time grappling with. Writer/director David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) tackles the hatred experienced by soldiers fighting WWI and reentering America afterward, as well as attempts to sterilize Black Americans. But whatever message Russell is trying to send — something about the importance of kindness? — gets lost in an exhausting string of asides about bird-watching, eugenics, the rise of fascism in America in the 1930s, high tea and morphine addiction. The whole movie, in fact, might be the addled imaginings of Burt, who constantly passes out after taking experimental medicines.
Shot by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, “Amsterdam” is visually stunning, shifting from the rich, earthy tones of the 1930s to various configurations of black-and-white for fake newsreel footage. Russell’s direction to his actors seems to have boiled down to, “Go for it!,” so it’s never boring, even if we’re not sure why Rami Malek, as Valerie’s brother, sounds like he’s about to overthrow the world when he welcomes a houseguest (James Bond villain hangover?) or whether the de-aging special effects used for Mike Myers have also somehow altered his “British” accent.
What I’m saying is that I’d almost recommend “Amsterdam” even though it’s a mess. I kept thinking it was like a lesser Wes Anderson movie on speed or a Coen brothers movie that was taken away from them in editing but the truth is that “Amsterdam” is not like any other movie I can recall. Like the city it’s named for but only partially set in, “Amsterdam” is a beautiful, often confounding adventure.
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for brief violence and bloody images)
Running time: 2:14
How to watch: Now in theaters