Near the beginning of Amsterdam, Taylor Swift’s character is shoved under a moving car. We watch the tire crunch her ribcage and drag her down the road, one leg hanging out like the Wicked Witch of the East. Somehow, she’s just slightly more lifeless than David O. Russell’s direction of this new movie.
Amsterdam is a suspenseless film noir crossed with an unfunny black comedy, burdened with superficial messages. The protagonist is Burt (Christian Bale), a middle-class doctor married to a Park Avenue aristocrat. During World War I, he’s sent to France, where he befriends the black soldier Harold (John David Washington). The two are promptly, graphically disfigured in combat and taken to a hospital, where they’re looked after by Valerie (Margot Robbie), a nurse who makes art out of the shrapnel she extracts from her patients. Soon, Valerie whisks them off to Amsterdam. There, they make a friendship pact they’ll accuse each other of breaking for the rest of the film. It can be tiresome spending every day dancing on sandy floors and seemingly earning no money, so the three split up and go back to New York. But in 1933, they reunite to investigate the murders of Burt and Harold’s commanding officer (Ed Begley Jr.) and his daughter (Swift). As tends to happen, they unearth an enormous conspiracy in the process.
Confronted with a lackluster movie, the advertising campaign has focused on the film’s glittering cast: Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy play Valerie’s sinister brother and sister-in-law, Mike Myers is a bird-loving glassmaker, Zoe Saldaña is an underwritten medical examiner, and even Robert DeNiro appears as an anti-corporatist general with the speech patterns and mannerisms of Bernie Sanders. Though Malek and Taylor-Joy are unbearable, most of the performances are adequate; still, only Bale and Myers have the required charisma.
Every scene is about two minutes too long, which yields a wearying, two-hour-14-minute runtime. The camera is almost always still, and there’s rarely any motion in the frame. Really, it’s like a picture book with drab colors. Only from the pacing of the dialogue can we infer that the screenwriter (Russell again) has included jokes, and the quirky, woodwind-heavy score from Daniel Pemberton might try to trick you into thinking the movie has more charm than it does.
But the main reason Amsterdam is so dull is the story. It’s bad etiquette for a critic to reveal a movie’s third act, although I don’t know what I could say that hasn’t been shown in the trailers. Be warned that Amsterdam features no twists, no red herrings, no betrayal, and no nuanced characterization whatsoever. If you can’t follow such a story, a scene at the end explains it one more time. That’s the detail that bothers me the most — I expect Hollywood to produce bland movies, but I’m insulted that the filmmakers thought Amsterdam was so brilliant and complex that it might go over the poor audience’s heads.
What’s puzzling, then, is not the plot but the inclusion of three messages that never coalesce. The first is that racism and antisemitism are bad. Burt (who, like the writer-director, is half Catholic and half Jewish) is disparaged by his snooty wife and her family, while an ex-soldier played by Chris Rock appears in a handful of shots to denounce mistreatment of African Americans. All these moments feel forced, especially since the movie misses the obvious opportunity to connect them with the second theme: Fascism is bad. You see, some of the characters in Amsterdam are antisemites and racists, while others are fascists. And what’s so bad about fascists, according to the movie? They want to work with big corporations to launch a coup d’état. If there’s anything specifically reprehensible about fascist ideology or policy — say, racism or antisemitism — we’re never told. Okay, we are, in one brief, clunky flashback to a forced-sterilization clinic that is never mentioned again.
The final message is about the power of friendship. I suppose that, with the right group of people, you too could dance on sandy floors or foil a plan to topple the United States government.