The stars appear one after the other — a banquet of talent, a glut of inventiveness — and yet nothing clicks. Hollywood's most famous squirm in a slog.
Welcome to “Amsterdam,” writer and director David O. Russell's answer to the question: Can some of the top actors in the world manage to elevate poor material? The answer is a dull no. It becomes a slaughterhouse.
Just look at this lead cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington. Russell wastes them with pointless dialogue and tedious scenes.
Then imagine a second tier of roles with Alessandro Nivola, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Zoe Saldaña, Rami Malek and Robert De Niro. All are left powerless. They are in a charisma-removal machine.
Bale and Washington play World War I veterans and fierce friends — soldiers who crossed the racial divide in France — and Robbie plays an inventive nurse who treats them. This bonded trio stumble onto a plot to overthrow the U.S. government while being framed for murder in 1930s New York.
It uses these three fictional characters to explore a real event in the runup to the Second World War in which a cabal of wealthy American businessmen conspired to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt by duping a retired general popular among veterans into being their figurehead.
“Amsterdam” shifts from 1933 to 1918 as it fills out backstories and love affairs. After returning to the '30s, Bale has become a kindly doctor and Washington's character becomes a lawyer, both helping fellow vets. The nurse is strung out on prescription drugs.
But unable to find a tone — screwball, noir, whodunit, rom-com, satire or thriller — the film plods along at its own airless, internal pace, leaving most of the actors so befuddled it’s not always clear they know what they’re aiming at either.
It’s a film where no one seems to answer a direct question, gruesome autopsies are performed on camera followed by whimsically sung ditties, and a script that tries for the profound when it says things like people “follow the wrong God home.”
“This is so strange,” says the good doctor at one point. “What does it mean?” Don't ask us.
“Amsterdam” reaches for something contemporary to say about race relations, concentration of wealth, veterans and fascism but ends up with a plodding, mannerist noise. This is what dollar bills must smell like burning. One starts to wonder if it was all a tax write-off.
Take Bale, who already reached his glass-eye limit onscreen when he starred in “Big Short.” Somehow he agreed to another such role, this time with the eyeball popping out numerous times and spilling on the ground. He attacks his role with a weird “Columbo” thing going, tilting angularly and adopting a rich New York accent.
Washington and Robbie have apparently chosen to ignore Bale's lead by acting as if they are in two separate and different movies — she plays a manic pixie artist who uses shrapnel to make sculptures and he makes his character stone-faced and passive. Everyone else seems to be badly mimicking old '30s films. (Swift sings at one point but otherwise she is marooned and wooden.)
It's not just the cast that is taken down: Emmanuel Lubezki, a celebrated director of photography who wowed with “Gravity” and “The Revenant,” turns in a film that seems very brown and undynamic.
Russell, the director of such taut dramas as “Three Kings” and “American Hustle,” has clearly vanished here. You can almost hear the collective rejoinder from the real city of Amsterdam: Why’d you do us dirty, man?
“Amsterdam,” a 20th Century Studios release exclusively for movie theaters starting Friday, is rated R for brief violence and bloody images. Running time: 134 minutes. No stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits