Writer-director David O. Russell seems to be coasting along lately, to put it nicely. His films have become an excuse for an ensemble cast to put on some glad rags and have some fun together, but without saying anything of substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, not every film needs to be substantial, but it’s odd that they are still being presented as praiseworthy and interesting when they, sadly, are not.
Maybe I am part of the problem, considering I gave American Hustle a pass and genuinely enjoyed Joy, neither of which were on a par with his better films. So this disappointment was probably inevitable, and I suspect many others will have felt the same way when they finally watched Amsterdam, a pretty, but ultimately hollow, distraction.
The plot is more convoluted than it needs to be, which is why I am not going to properly summarize it here. Let’s just say that a suspicious death alerts one or two people to the idea that certain individuals may be plotting to overthrow the US government. This puts the people (played by Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Margot Robbie) in a lot of potential danger.
This material could have been done any number of ways, from tense thriller to farce, from straightforward historical drama to action movie, but Russell, in all his wisdom, decides to do just what he’s done before. You get some humour, you get a lot of drama, and you get a cast allowed to indulge themselves as long as the director is also happy with their work.
As for the cast, it’s more of a mixed bag than you might think. Bale doesn’t feel enjoyable in his main role, his character defined by the false glass eye he wears, but both Washington and Robbie improve every scene they are in, both avoiding that sensation of just repeating tics and tricks from their own back catalogue that Bale conveys. Zoe Saldaña is good in her small role, Robert De Niro is fun without being funny, and Timothy Olyphant brings the added bonus of, well, being Timothy Olyphant. If there is ever a film in which I don’t welcome the appearance of Olyphant then I want to be slapped repeatedly around the face until I see sense again. There are also supporting turns from Rami Malek, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift (just a cameo, really, but she’s decent), Alessandro Nivola, Matthias Schoenaerts, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, and Mike Myers.
The production design is very good, as are the wardrobe choices and the musical score, but this is a film that needed more than just the visual distractions and a couple of key performances to make it worthwhile. It needed a better-written, and better-performed, lead, and it needed a much better approach to the story, which is an interesting and intriguing tale. Instead, we get to once again look on as Russell and his cast appear to be enjoying some in-jokes that nobody else is privy to. To sum up . . . disappointing, but pretty.
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