Amsterdam: An urban jungle of entangled, complicated plots
Much like Concorde airplanes or the Luxembourgish housing market, I think everyone wished Amsterdam would’ve worked as a film.
It’s got everything: a star-studded cast, fantastic cinematography, authentic and fun costuming, a dynamic roster of main characters, and so on and so on. But the gears never seem to quite click into place to allow for a smooth and legible experience.
In 1930s New York, a pair of friends (both veterans of the First World War) are witness to the death of their former commander’s daughter one late and foggy night. The duo, played by a quirked up Christian Bale and a subtle-but-strong John David Washington, have a long history together.
After the end of the war in Europe, Bale’s Burt Berendsen and Washington’s Harold Woodman befriended a whimsical nurse, Valerie Voze, who is played by Margot Robbie. The trio spent many years living in hedonism in Amsterdam, with Valerie and Harold developing a strong romantic connection.
But after their European lives fall apart, the pair of veterans drift back to the United States where they establish businesses to aid their fellow veterans suffering from long-term effects of their service. That is, until fifteen years later, they find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Burt and Harold are accused of the murder (the victim, incidentally, is played by Taylor Swift) and are swept up in an elaborate conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States. Worse yet, they’re in the middle of organising a veteran’s gala - which might just be an opportunity to prove their innocence and expose the shadowy cabal of would-be coup leaders.
So the stakes are high, time is in short supply, and the film is careering towards a big showdown at the gala. But most scenes, no matter how charming Bale, Washington and Robbie are, all have this semi-rushed, semi-foggy quality to them.
All talk, no action
For the most part, Amsterdam’s quirky cast of characters stand around talking to each other. Flashbacks to the dreamy days in Amsterdam all just take place in a room as opposed to canal-side escapades. It’s all tell, no show.
As more characters are introduced, the stakes and scope of the conspiratorial plot are supposed to deepen. But when cinematic rock stars like Michael Shannon, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Mike Myers or Robert De Niro take their turns to enter stage, they immediately get swallowed by this inherent lethargy.
Given little wiggle room in a script in which every character simply stands around staring and speaking at one another, nothing really happens besides chatter about spies and plots and elaborate conspiracies.
Based on the 1933 Business Plot, in which wealthy business tycoons allegedly planned to overthrow Roosevelt via a fascist-adjacent veteran’s association headed by a US general, there’d be tons of room for intrigue and contemporary commentary on the power of wealthy financiers. And Amsterdam certainly tries.
But with an incredibly wide array of top-tier actors, all equally deserving of screen time, comes an overly ambitious (and, truth be told, convoluted) plot. Instead of the central conspiracy deepening, new parallel story threads are opened up.
Flashbacks to the Great War or Amsterdam are interspersed throughout, but all the while the action is primarily conveyed through people standing/sitting in a circle talking.
The narrative thread vanishes in Amsterdam’s tangle of overlapping plots. By the time the ensemble cast arrive at the veteran’s gala, many might be scratching their heads and wagging their chins in an effort to figure out all the hows and whys and whats. There’s simply too much going on with not enough time and depth to explore every avenue the film is going down.
Viewers lost on the journey
If Amsterdam’s narrative continuity had a breaking point (that is, a point where it loses much of the audience to confusion) then it might be when Burt and Harold re-encounter Valerie in the States.
Her surprising role in their semi-unclear predicament plus Tom’s (Rami Malek’s) involvement being revealed simultaneously makes for a moment that could make an audience collectively go “... what?”
But Amsterdam isn’t nearly as bad as some of the more scathing reviews made it out to be. For one, every cast member is unequivocally great, with John David Washington standing out for his cool and collected demeanour.
Set dressing, even if it's just mostly rooms for the characters to stand around in, are all elaborately furnished. The costumes, too, all capture a post-Roaring Twenties kind of dulled glamour.
Much like the city with which it shares its name, Amsterdam is wrought with rifts and a bit high on its own supply. An over-reliance on the star-power of its cast attempts to mask an overly ambitious plot, leaving audiences confused as to what exactly the film was about and what happened at the end.
So while it’s not the trainwreck it was initially made out to be, Amsterdam might become one of those films to watch on a streaming service on a weeknight.