October 7, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by David O. Russell
Some language in French with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, from 1918 to 1933, the dramatic film “Amsterdam” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A medical doctor, his attorney best friend, and the attorney’s girlfriend get caught up in a murdery mystery involving wealthy and powerful people.
Culture Audience: “Amsterdam” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stars of the movie, which doesn’t offer much that’s compelling except for its star power.
The frequently boring and muddled “Amsterdam” has many big-name stars, but this misguided drama just adds up to a lot of posturing and hot air. The filmmakers cared more about wrangling celebrities into the cast than crafting a story worthy of this talent. “Amsterdam” is a huge misfire from writer/director David O. Russell, who seems so enamored with the star power in the movie, he let the acting and tone of “Amsterdam” become scattershot and uneven.
“Amsterdam” veers in and out between voiceover narration of three characters: medical doctor Burt Berendsen (played by Christian Bale), his attorney best friend Harold Woodman (played by John David Washington), and Harold’s girlfriend Valerie Voze (played by Margot Robbie). Burt gets the most voiceover narration and is presented in the movie as the lead protagonist. The story, which takes place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, jumps around in the timeline from 1918 to 1933, with several flashbacks within this time period.
As shown in a flashback, Burt (who has questionable medical ethics) and Harold (who is more sincere and staightforward), who are both from New York City, met each other in Europe in 1918, when they were soldiers in World War I. When they were both wounded in the war in France, they ended up in the care of Valerie, who pretended to be a French nurse named Valerie Vandenberg while living in France. It turns out (which was already revealed in the “Amsterdam” trailer), Valerie is really an American heiress who was estranged from her family and trying to start over with a new life in Europe.
While Burt and Harold healed from their wounds, the three of them went to Amsterdam, became close, and made a loyalty pact with each other. Harold and Valerie fell in love, while Burt remained ambivalent about his crumbling and unhappy marriage to heiress Beatrice Vandenheuvel (played by Andrea Riseborough), who pressured a reluctant Burt to enlist in the military so that he could become a war hero who would get medals of honor. The tight-knit trio of Burt, Harold and Valerie unraveled when Valerie suddenly left of her own choice and didn’t tell Harold and Burt where she was going.
Burt and Harold eventually returned to New York City, where they have been helping each other out by referring clients and patients to each other. The movie opens in 1933, when Burt is asked by heiress Liz Meekins (played by Taylor Swift) to do an autopsy of her father, General Bill Meekins (played by Ed Begley Jr.), who passed away unexpectedly. Liz believes that her father did not die of natural causes. The autopsy reveals that her father could have been poisoned. (Squeamish viewers be warned: The autopsy scene is very graphic.)
But before toxicology test results can be processed, Liz tells Burt and Harold that she wants to call off the investigation. While Liz, Harold and Burt are speaking outside on a street, a shady character named Taron Milfax (played by Timothy Olyphant) pushes Liz in front of a car in motion. She is run over by the car and killed instantly. Police are nearby, and Taron immediately says that Burt and Harold killed Liz by pushing her in front of the car.
Burt and Harold vehemently deny it, and then run away when it looks like the police don’t believe them. Burt and Harold become the prime suspects in the murder and do their own investigation to clear their names. During the course of this investigation, Burt and Harold find out that Valerie is really an American heiress who has been living in nearby New Jersey for several years. Valerie lives with her oddball brother Tom Voze (played by Rami Malek) and Tom’s domineering wife Libby Voze (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who tries to control the lives of Valerie and Tom.
Harold, who was heartbroken over Valerie’s sudden departure from his life, eventually forgives her, and they resume their love affair. Burt’s love life isn’t going so well, since Burt’s wife Beatrice has asked him to move out of their apartment. Beatrice tells Burt that she’s unhappy in the marriage because he used to be “beautiful,” but his war scars (including his injured back) have made him “hideous,” and he’s an overall disappointment to her. Harold, Valerie and Burt eventually cross paths with General Gil Dillenbeck (played by Robert De Niro), “the most decorated military general in U.S. history,” who has power, influential connections and political aspirations.
“Amsterdam” is packed with a lot of undeveloped characters who don’t do much except show that the “Amsterdam” filmmakers could get well-known actors to play the roles of these characters. Chris Rock has the role of Milton King, a wisecracking former war buddy of Burt and Harold. Milton, who currently works for Harold, is supposed to be hilarious, but he’s not. Milton’s not-funny-at-all remarks include his obnoxiously racist comments about white people. Alessandro Nivola is Detective Hiltz, and Matthias Schoenaerts is Detective Lem Getweiler, the two generic police characters who are leading the Meekins murder investigation.
Zoe Saldaña has the role of Irma St. Clair, Burt’s strong-willed autopsy nurse, whose feelings for Burt might go beyond a work relationship. And, of course, any movie that involves war and international intrigue has to predictably have spies. In “Amsterdam,” they are Paul Canterbury (played by Michael Shannon) and Henry Norcross (played by Mike Myers), whose spy identities are shown as captions immediately when these characters are first seen on screen.
“Amsterdam” is made with the tone that audiences should automatically be impressed by all the celebrities who are in the cast. Unfortunately, “Amsterdam” has so much awful dialogue and messy plot developments, all that star power is wasted in a substandard movie. Bale, Washington and Robbie seem to be doing their best as the three central characters, but this three-way friendship looks awkward and fake on screen. Awkward and fake is how to describe “Amsterdam” overall—an example of how star power in front of the camera can’t save a bad movie.
20th Century Studios released “Amsterdam” in U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022.