I don’t like David O. Russell. I’ll grant that’s not quite as much of a controversial stance, given a long and horrible timeline of abuse toward his cast and crew, that time in 2003 when he physically assaulted Christopher Nolan, and that time in 2011 when he got away with sexually assaulting his 19-year-old transgender niece. (Yeah. That happened.)

But on another level, let’s take stock of his last four movies, all released within a five-year window from 2010 to 2015.

  • The Fighter: Got a 91 percent Tomatometer and a $129.2 million worldwide gross on a reported budget of $25 million. Out of seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay), it won two: Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.
  • Silver Linings Playbook: Got a 92 percent Tomatometer and a $236.4 million worldwide gross on a reported $21 million budget. Out of eight Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and all four acting categories), it only won Best Actress.
  • American Hustle: Got a 92 percent Tomatometer and a $251.2 million worldwide gross on a reported $40 million budget. Out of ten Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and all four acting categories), it won precisely zero.
  • Joy: This one got only got a 60 percent Tomatometer, and a worldwide gross of $101.1 million on a reported budget of $60 million. All it got was a Best Actress nomination and no wins.

First of all, that’s a pretty damn sharp dropoff between those last two movies. More importantly, given how The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle were all solidly-crafted films with wild critical and commercial success, it’s astounding how they had virtually no cultural staying power. I don’t hear anyone quoting or talking about those movies or listing them among the most iconic in the storied careers of the actors involved. Moreover, I find it rather telling that Russell’s films got so few wins out of so many nominations. Hell, Russell himself was given all those nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, and he still doesn’t have a statuette.

For someone with this such consistent critical and box office success, for someone with so many Oscar nominations in so short a time, you’d think that David O. Russell would be hailed as a high Hollywood auteur on the level of Christopher Nolan or David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson, or even Wes Anderson. That never happened. While I’m sure the controversies certainly haven’t helped his case, I think the bigger problem is Russell’s repeating pattern of making good films that cause a huge critical and commercial splash, only to fade away immediately after awards season. He could coax plenty of nominations from the Academy, but he couldn’t close the deal with any awards and he couldn’t boost the profiles of the talents involved in any lasting way.

I’m pretty sure that’s the big reason for the dropoff with Joy: By that point, everyone had already gotten wise to the act. And seven years later, here we are with Amsterdam, another star-studded Oscar-bait drama from Russell. It’s a murder mystery very loosely based on the 1933 Business Plot that attempted to oust President Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a fascist military dictator.

(Side note: Yes, I know that’s a long time in between movies, and no, I’m not holding that against him. The pandemic happened, remember.)

The film quickly turned out to be the first unmitigated flop of Russell’s career, with a pitiful 30 percent Tomatometer. While the final box office numbers for opening weekend aren’t in as of this typing, it’s only projected to make $7 million on opening weekend. That puts it a distant third behind the second weekend of Smile and the opening of goddamn Lyle Lyle Crocodile. So what happened? Well, let’s take a look at the film itself.

Surprisingly, the story mostly takes place in New York City, circa 1933. At the core of our film is the trio of Dr. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Dr. Berendsen is a veteran of WWI, working to help fellow war veterans with their injuries by way of plastic surgery, voice therapy, physical therapy, pain medications, and so on. I might add that Burt has a business on the side, conducting unreliable and highly illegal experiments on himself to find new and more effective painkillers.

Burt is assisted in his business by Harold, another Great War veteran now acting as a lawyer. Just before the war ended, the both of them suffered grievous war injuries on a battlefield in Belgium, where they were tended to by Valerie — a nurse with the French military at the time. In the interest of getting better treatment for those injuries, Valerie spirited Burt and Harold out to Amsterdam, where they proceeded to live out their happiest lives filled with love and art and happiness. But then Burt just had to go back to his practice and his estranged wife (Beatrice, played by Andrea Riseborough), and Harold followed him to NYC shortly after. Valerie promptly disappeared without a trace, openly breaking the mutual promise that all three would always be there for each other.

Did I mention that this was a murder mystery? Because this is a murder mystery. We really should get around to talking about that.

The plot kicks off when Burt is called in to assist Harold with a client: Senator Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), formerly a general and a mutual war acquaintance to Harold and Burt. Trouble is, the senator died under mysterious circumstances, and his daughter (Elizabeth, played by Taylor Swift, of all people) wants Burt to conduct an autopsy and hopefully rule out foul play. Things go even further off the rails after the autopsy, when Elizabeth is suddenly pushed into oncoming traffic, with Burt and Harold the chief suspects in her murder. Thus Burt and Harold have to find some way of clearing their name, a process further complicated when Valerie finally resurfaces after twelve years.

You can already see the problem here, I’m sure.

To be clear, the cast isn’t the main problem here. We’ve got Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Zoe Saldana, Chris Rock, Matthias Schoenaertes, Robert DeNiro, Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr… even the least of the background roles is cast by a world-class actor. And every single one of them puts in a captivating performance. Hell, even Taylor freaking Swift comes out looking like an actor worthy of holding her own against all these heavy hitters. Unfortunately, this has the unintended effect of so many A-listers competing for screen time, which in turn has the effect of bloating the runtime and the plot so that everyone’s given their due.

Which brings me to the main problem: This script is all over the place. It’s like the movie wants to be a sincere anti-fascist polemic while also serving as a period interracial love story while also being a noir murder mystery thriller WHILE ALSO serving up a quirky comedy. So let’s take it one piece at a time.

To start with, the “murder mystery” angle is a nonstarter. It flat doesn’t work for the simple reason that there is no process of gathering clues and chasing down leads for the purpose of deducing a solution. This is all about Burt and Harold flailing about for anyone rich and powerful enough that they’re willing and able to vouch for Burt and Harold and get the cops off their back. After that, it’s all about staging a huge private gala in such a way that the actual culprits will be smoked out.

It really is that simple. Our protagonists set a trap and the bad guys fall for it. The mystery isn’t solved because our lead characters are that smart, but because our villains are that stupid. That’s exactly the opposite of how any good mystery thriller should go. I might add that it takes our lead characters over 100 minutes to get the trap in place, which doesn’t make for a well-paced movie either.

The romance angle doesn’t work because it feels forced and entirely pointless where the main mystery plot is concerned. The comedy angle fails for the same reasons, which has the unfortunate additional effect of making the comedy look forcibly quirky. It certainly doesn’t help that the characters will get easily sidetracked and get to talking about their romantic hardships while, say, detectives are close by and ready to break down the door in the next two minutes if they don’t get the evidence they’re looking for.

Sorry, detectives, what’s that? You’re just gonna patiently wait outside while your suspects are talking behind a closed door for a suspiciously long time? Okay, that’s cool too, I guess.

Then we get to the anti-fascist angle, easily the most prominent theme in the whole movie. Alas, it fails because while the filmmakers clearly threw a great deal of passion and sincerity behind the intended message, they don’t really offer much in terms of anything new or intelligent to say on the topic. And as with everything else in this movie, it suffers for being undercooked because the script is trying to accomplish so many other things besides.

With Amsterdam, there can be no doubt that David O. Russell finally flew too close to the sun. He loaded a 130-minute movie with so many storylines and contradictory tones that none of them come out particularly well. The cast is easily the film’s strongest feature, but in a film so totally at odds with itself, there was never any chance that these actors were going to work well as an ensemble.

In every possible respect, this is a film at odds with itself. It gives the impression that Russell had no idea what he wanted to do or what he wanted to make, only that he wanted another shot at Oscar gold. This ain’t worth it.


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