Review: In ‘Amsterdam,’ a cast full of stars fails to lift off

20th Century Studios

Ben Churney, news correspondent

“Amsterdam” had so much promise on paper, with its cast of award-winning heavyweights and an interesting-enough storyline, but the film does not seem likely to be nominated for an Oscar (or any award) anytime soon.

In director and writer David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam,” Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a damaged doctor (from the war) who befriends Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a fellow veteran, and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse they met after getting badly injured. It’s set throughout the course of World War I and the trio’s trip to Amsterdam following the war. Fast forward to the 1930s, and the three characters get wrapped up in the mysterious murder of a mutual friend. From there, it becomes even stranger, as it’s clear that there is much more behind the murder than the trio thought. It takes them on a journey that connects with family, other friends, powerful people and organizations. 

A murder mystery with a star-studded cast should have been reason enough for a ticket purchase, but the film turned out to be a waste of two hours. Other than Bale’s exceptional acting, most of the performances — and there are many, across this yearbook of a cast — are lackluster and devoid of any emotion. Aside from the dull acting, the writing from Russell is surface-level and cheesy. There are no characters to bond with, not much to keep viewers on the edge of their seats — which a murder mystery should do — and ultimately nothing meaningful to take away from this film.

The on-screen relationship between Valerie and Harold seemed to have potential, as their love story took many turns, but it flopped from the beginning. The writing for these characters was abysmal, as it did not engross the audience, or help viewers empathize or relate with the characters. Also, the acting from Robbie and Washington did not help, as the audience never cared much for how this relationship turned out, even though it was the main romantic focus in the film.

The plot of “Amsterdam” bounces around from the characters’ pasts to the present day (of the 1930s), with random interjections from insignificant side plots. Viewers can’t help but feel lost as what started out as a murder mystery turns into another person’s murder mystery, which then turns into the characters trying to take down a fascist organization. 

What films lack in writing, they can sometimes make up for with gorgeous cinematography or inventive editing. However, this film’s mediocre camera work, shots and editing are hardly heavy lifters under the weight of its subpar storytelling. Russell’s creative risks, however large, don’t stick the landing, which is perhaps the only real humor in the two-hour film. 

Not only is “Amsterdam” disappointing for viewers, but it has become a massive loss for its creators. A monstrous $80 million was spent making the film, which opened to an embarrassing $6.4 million in the box office. In an age in which many studios prioritize profit-guarantors like superhero films, sequels and spinoffs, it’s encouraging to see a studio spend this much money on an original storyline. But it’s frustrating to see them place their bets on a terrible project. The slow, dragging train wreck that is “Amsterdam” has itself become another obstacle to original storytelling in a film industry that insists on moving farther and farther away from uncertain, explorative projects.

A highly anticipated October release for many, “Amsterdam” falls way short of expectations, dragged down by minimal-effort performances and a cookie-cutter screenplay not worth remembering. In an ideal industry, the shortcomings of this film — both creatively and economically — won’t deter major studios from producing original stories. 

Luckily “Amsterdam” is a film that will be forgotten by most, and that its A-list cast will no doubt wish for the film to be struck from their IMDb pages.