Amsterdam is essentially a return to the millennial eccentricity that David O. Russell cemented with I Heart Huckabees. That film was followed by the longest blank period in his career to date – six years – while Amsterdam has been preceded by an even longer blank period – seven years – suggesting that Russell reached a kind of apex with this eccentric mode, and has struggled to integrate it into his subsequent films. While his collaborations with Jennifer Lawrence all paired it with a more naturalistic outlook, Amsterdam is the first film to really revive the balls-to-the-wall quirkiness of I Heart Huckabees, and shares many of its concerns – nefarious networks, alternative histories, and existential crisis, all expressed in and through an incongruous ensemble cast. In this case, however, the story is more historical, as Russell sets his sights on the Business Plot, a supposed conspiracy of wealthy industrialists who attempted to dethrone Franklin D. Roosevelt, and replace him with a dictator, in 1933. We approach this conspiracy from the vantage point of two veterans, Burt Berendson (Christian Bale), and Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), and a nurse, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), who travel to Amsterdam after World War I, and form an unshakeable bond.
Right from the outset, this eccentric mode feels painfully dated, and even more so because Russell hasn’t returned to it this emphatically in almost twenty years. Back in 2004, his brand of quirkiness was a way of indulging sentimentality in a post-ironic world, a negotiation between 90s postmodernism and 00s new sincerity. Even then, it could feel trite, twee, posey, and preachy, but all those qualities are enhanced a hundredfold by Russell’s decision to lean into the historical flatness was in vogue a few years ago. We tended to see this style mainly in vanity projects directed by actors – Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, Ben Affleck’s Live By Night, Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply – and Amsterdam often feels cut from the same cloth. Perhaps that’s why it’s so unremittingly actorly, featuring an enormous array of famous faces who perform self-conscious cameos for a few minutes or seconds before disappearing back into the eccentric ambience. The two male leads also suffer from the same actorliness – Washington’s blankness acts as a charisma vacuum, while Burt’s glass eye seems as if it is designed to turn Bale’s whole performance charmingly awry, but just ends up adding another layer of exhausting whimsy, especially because it never even looks like a glass eye.
Whereas I Heart Huckabees maintained a steady hyperactive flow, Amsterdam is manic and inert at the same time, like taking an upper and a downer in one hit. At first, the patter dialogue seems like it will provide some pace or momentum, but it quickly turns hermetic, and soon stops feeling like dialogue at all, lapsing instead into a series of inscrutable internal monologues. The delivery is also really strange, and almost seems designed to prevent the dialogue being digestible. Everything is spoken in a monotonous sotto voce style, on the cusp of audibility, while the actors tend to enunciate in unusual places, as if paying more attention to the inherent musicality of the language than its actual meaning. That kind of concrete delivery can work wonders in the right hands, but here it feels more like a reading of a screenplay that hasn’t yet materialised into a film. At times, I wondered whether it might work better as a book, and experimented with closing my eyes for five minutes and just listening to it, as an audio book. Interestingly, this actually made the narrative more engaging.
Insofar as this contorted script has a meaning beyond mere mannerism, Russell attributes it to the strange connective tissue between World War I and World War II, which is where the action unfolds. Over the first act, the characters share a proclivity for redundant repetition – it’s part of the reason the film exceeds two hours – that culminates with a discussion of how and why the Great War might repeat itself. Valerie reflects that “the dream repeats itself because it forgets itself and so repeats itself,” a mantra that Russell immediately mirrors in his own writing. In the next scene, Valerie gives a series of instructions on how to turn on an errant light switch – up, down, down, down, up – before we shift to the manic repetitive motions of the “Sand Dance” that was taking Europe by storm at the time. As repetition intensifies, and becomes repetition of repetition, it feels as if the arrival of a second world war is inevitable precisely, or paradoxically, because of how often people caution against it.
All of this plays out against a distinct visual scheme, in which Russell tends to focus on small groups of people at a time, typically in contained or circular spaces, as if to fuse the ronde comedies of mid-century cinema with a traditional theatre in the round. Again, a predisposition for low-angle shots and circular camera motions make it feel as if we are attending a live reading more than a fully-formed film, and this is only enhanced by the constant 180-degree conversation editing in which the characters speak to each other front on. At these moments, the characters, or actors, seem to be addressing the camera more than each other, segueing the film into the realm of TikTok, as all pretence of cinematic distance breaks down into a series of poses and postures that are unbelievably twee and trite. Beyond a certain point, Amsterdam is just like watching celebrities recline in real time, indulging in a smugness and languor that even Russell’s most manic contortions can’t conceal.
Given that rampant celebrity worship, and continuous self-congratulation, it’s hard to take the film’s railings at capitalism, or business, or fascism, or America seriously, especially as all of Russell’s eccentricities boil down to a completely ham-fisted finale – all the main players standing in a circle, speaking or yelling at each other; fifteen minutes of voiceover exposition from Bale to connect the dots; and, finally, a wrap-up of all the cameos we’ve seen over the last two and a half hours. With eccentricity, celebrity and profundity exhausted, Amsterdam doesn’t have space for anything but the blandest of platitudes – “it’s love versus hate” – since it only really exists to perpetuate its own insular brand of eccentricity. All of Russell’s films since I Heart Huckabees have been beautiful and interesting on their own terms, but this genuinely feels like a dead-end, a reminder why 00s eccentricity had such a limited shelf life.