“Amsterdam” (2022): A decorated ensemble tries their best

There is a scene towards the end of “Amsterdam” (2022) in which the film’s lead, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), reels under the effects of a powerful painkiller while the equally famous remainder of the cast struggles to bring the film to any kind of climax. Cuts between a tilting close-up of Burt’s swaying, detached expression, and a series of careful medium shots underpin Bale’s New York-accented voice-over as he lays bland subtext bare. The scene not only renders any interest in the film’s messages inert through careless over-explanation, but also, in Burt’s drifting energy, provides a fitting analogy for what it is like to view this film. 

Reemerged from a seven-year film hiatus, writer and director David O. Russell managed to pull together perhaps the most outrageously talented and famous cast since the previous Wes Anderson venture. Ranging from canonized stars like Bale, Margot Robbie and Robert De Niro to developing frontman John David Washington (not to mention Taylor Swift, if only briefly), this is the kind of ensemble that seems like they could turn any half-hearted project into a truly entertaining spectacle. 

“The connections between characters are only thinly revealed by understated affection and vague causality.”

As the horde of celebrities trickle into the narrative, however, we find that each of them has been given archetypal husks dressed up in undergraduate-level screenwriting and steamrolled by flat direction. With each new introduction, the cinematography welcomes the beautiful faces of its stars in with a comfortable close-up, giving us not only the perfect seat to observe the Oscar-contenders from the last few years attempt their magic but also to see how truly lifeless this film is.

For a film that centers on the unbreakable pact between three friends — Burt, Valerie (Robbie), and Harold (Washington) — you would expect that they, the lead trinity at the very least, would convey some kind of intimacy. But even as each actor seems to be doing their best to at least enjoy themselves, with particular success by Bale and Robbie, the connections between characters are only thinly revealed by understated affection and vague causality. 

At first, the energy between Burt and Harold or Valerie seems right. But what becomes clear is that the interracial romance between Harold and Valerie that this film couches most of its “progressive” message in is tepid, consisting entirely of tried and true screenwriting hacks like “Love at first sight is real” and “True love lasts forever” rather than quality storytelling and character development.

What should have been an exciting, clever and quirky pseudo-noir carried by a powerhouse ensemble quickly reveals that the cards it’s holding aren’t surprising, nor are they going to be thoughtfully played. Tangents about ornithology, comically un-comical bits and signpost characters who are swiftly knocked aside as soon as we read their lettering populate this drifting, tired film that collapses under the weight of its own potential. 

Even as the production design and cinematography nearly rise to something remarkable, occasionally infusing a scene with an energy the script or direction cannot provide, and the unreasonably attractive cast milk their suave and street-credit for everything it is worth, “Amsterdam” cannot save itself from having only the trappings of a good movie, leaving us swaying in numbness where there should have been climactic electricity.