For at least the first half of Amsterdam's running time, I had no idea what sort of movie it was trying to be.
A quirky murder mystery? An earnest historical picture about race relations in the early 1900s? A story about the power of friendships even in times of war and turmoil? A zany conspiratorial thriller?
Scenes dragged. Jokes flopped. Performances felt forced and flustered. The shaggy-dog-story structure was so haphazard that the movie occasionally stopped to explain itself with expository voiceovers, as if the characters themselves were worried they were leaving the audience cold.
Nothing about it worked in the slightest. What was this movie even trying to do?
And then, about halfway through the film, a character rifling through a rich man's papers discovered a pamphlet labeled "The Committee for Sound Money." This, it turned out, was the code name for an even more insidious conspiracy—a secret, historical plot against America by a group of wealthy, racist, corporate bigwigs.
Ah! Finally, the movie's raison d'être: Politics. More specifically: Fascism. Amsterdam, it turns out, is a warning about the rise of fascism in the United States.
Even more specifically: It is a tedious, tendentious, borderline-unwatchable warning about the rise of fascism in the United States.
You might expect greatness from Amsterdam just based on the talent alone. The star-studded cast includes Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Zoe Saldaña, Robert De Niro, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, and even Taylor Swift. Shoot! A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all those stars.
Instead, Oscar-nominated writer-director David O. Russell takes this veritable gold mine of a call sheet and extracts lifeless reads that don't connect with each other. Every one of these performers can hold an audience's attention, but Russell forces all of them into awkwardly stagy line readings with no life or energy. At times it's less like watching a polished Hollywood product and more like watching a particularly cold dress rehearsal.
The blame for this movie's failures goes entirely to Russell, who loosely adapted the story from the real-life tale of World War I veteran Smedley Butler, a Marine General who a small group of corporate types attempted to bribe into becoming their fascist figurehead in a little-known failed coup in the 1930s. Russell clearly wants Amsterdam to be a madcap historical romp that closes with a serious message bearing contemporary relevance.
Fascism is always lurking in the background of American power and society, the movie wants to say, and fascism, well, it's pretty scary. So as the movie wraps up, we get a bunch of scenes in which characters explain, in so many words, that fascism is always lurking in the background of American power and society, and that, well, it's pretty scary.
It very much is. But Russell's cringe-inducing script and antic, mannered direction not only don't make the case, they provide absolutely nothing for a viewer to hang onto during the attempt.
There's nothing inherently wrong with using a movie to make a point about politics. But anyone attempting to do so should probably first attempt to make something that works, you know, as a movie—ideally something that doesn't end with a farrago of half-baked monologues that play like Twitter threads by someone who just read an interesting Wikipedia article about a little known historical episode.
Even that description probably makes Amsterdam sound more interesting than it is. The two-and-a-quarter-hour movie is simply a chore to sit through, to the point of wholly undermining its nominal thesis. Who knew that the rise of fascism could be so plodding and dreary?
It's not that this sort of thing can't be done well. Russell seems desperate to mimic Wes Anderson, and especially Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel—a stylized, zany, quirky-comic ensemble period piece about the rise of fascism that was funny, human, absorbing, and affecting. Amsterdam is similarly styled as a warning about the ever-present darkness in America's history and character, a darkness that still exists today, and to which all good citizens must be perpetually on guard.
After sitting through this film, however, I have a different warning to deliver: Don't go see this terrible, turgid mess. You'll regret it if you do.