The Department of Redundancy Department – Amsterdam

There’s something to be said for sticking to a successful formula. When certain elements work, it’s natural to want to go back to the well and try it again. I totally get that. And there are plenty of filmmakers who’ve relied on tried and true methods to come up with an entertaining product, be it someone like Steven Spielberg, who finds new and prestigious ways to innovate his personal hallmarks every few years, or the likes of Kevin Smith, who has mostly dedicated himself to catering to his beloved fanbase, even when he veers away from comedy and more into genre.

But you have to be exceedingly careful not to repeat yourself too often, or else you’ll fly right past “diminishing returns” and end up as a parody of Multiplicity, spending years on end making copies of copies that just aren’t satisfying. That’s what has happened with David O. Russell, evidenced initially by 2015’s deeply disappointing Joy and now even further with Amsterdam, a flashy affair with a huge ensemble cast of A-listers, all saying the same stuff over and over again, both figuratively and literally.

Russell had three prestige hits in a row in the 2010s, leading off with The Fighter, followed by Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. All of them had three major things going for them. One, the presentation was quite stylish, hyping up the material through impressive cinematography, editing, and production design. Two, they had Oscar-caliber performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, picking up several nominations and wins from that group. Three, the dialogue-driven scripts were well-written and clever, getting some very high-minded ideas across. In two of those three films, there was the added bonus of them being based on real events and people, enhancing the visual profile with a bit of cheeky revisionist history.

The problem here is that Russell tries to hit all those grace notes again, but he doesn’t really have anything worthwhile to say, so the entire film just rehashes stuff that was done much better in previous projects. You can see this from the very first moment of the movie, where a text slate declares, “A lot of this actually happened,” echoing the more funny, “Some of this actually happened” from American Hustle. From the instant the film starts, Russell is copying off his own paper, changing it just enough to not completely plagiarize himself. But oddly enough, American Hustle showed its work when it came to the Abscam operation, whereas this movie merely settles for one side-by-side video during the credits where De Niro, as General Gil Dillenbeck, recites verbatim a public statement given by General Smedley Butler. That’s the only real connection we get to actual history, and for some reason Russell still felt the need to change names, probably because everything else in the film is complete fiction and he didn’t want to be sued by Butler’s estate.

This superfluous repetition only becomes more exacerbating in the main plot, which features Bale as Dr. Burt Berendsen, a doctor and World War I veteran who has a relatively shady practice dedicated to helping former soldiers. He’s best friends with his former subordinate in the war, Harold Woodsman (played by John David Washington), now an attorney. As they plan a reunion gala for their regiment, they learn that their commanding officer, Bill Meekins (Ed Begley, Jr.) has died under mysterious circumstances, and an autopsy suggests foul play. When the pair are framed for murder, they must race against the clock to not only clear their names, but discover who was really behind everything, and how it all might tie into global events.

This leads to a reunion with Valerie (Margot Robbie), a nurse and artist who treated Burt and Harold during the war, and with whom they enjoyed a Bohemian lifestyle in the titular Dutch capital for a time. She’s kept secrets from both of them, especially in the 15 years since they last saw one another, and it’s on her initiative that the mystery is set in motion.

Now, this main trio does well enough, particularly Washington, but on the whole there isn’t much to any of them as characters. Burt basically has two traits, a thick Brooklyn accent and a glass eye. Valerie is an almost textbook femme fatale archetype. Only Harold gets any real depth, but it’s handled so haphazardly that much of his development comes via exposition dumps that would have been much better had the details been delivered via more casual dialogue or competent visuals.

As for the rest of the ensemble, the vast majority of them are tremendous actors, but none of them really gets all that much to do, and they make hardly any impression on the viewer. Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy, two performers I enjoy immensely, are completely one note. Chris Rock never gets to stick around long enough to have any real bearing on the proceedings. Zoe Saldaña exists only as an object of affection. Mike Myers and Michael Shannon play intelligence agents like a warmed over Abbott and Costello. Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as the detectives working the case are literally just there to play good cop/racist cop for a handful of scenes. And as for Taylor Swift, well, I’m guessing they brought her in to sing a little bit, because she sure as hell wasn’t acting for her 10 minutes of screen time.

Even sadder, none of them are helped by empty dialogue that for some reason gets repeated ad nauseam. On several occasions the three leads will have conversations where one person will assert something, a second will respond, and the third will simply restate the first person’s line. There are jaw-dropping bad moments where lines like, “The dream repeats itself, because history repeats itself, and so the dream repeats itself” are uttered by serious actors. And of course, there’s the freaking title itself, which is shoehorned in so many times that when CinemaSins inevitably covers this movie, they should honestly have a combination “Roll Credits/Bonus Round” of people just saying “Amsterdam.”

All of this nonsense robs the movie of its intrigue and its stakes, especially when all it leads to is a middle school-level book report about fascism and capitalism. There are no real twists and turns in this mystery, because the characters telegraph everything and the non-linear plot (the editing is just horrid) still goes exactly where you’d expect. My only guess is that Russell thought he could browbeat us with boredom until our senses were dulled enough that we could honestly be surprised.

It’s a shame, too, because this could have worked. The costuming and makeup jobs are on point, as is the production design. Daniel Pemberton provides an excellent, lively score. Even the end credits song, “Time,” performed by a singer called Giveon and co-written by him, Pemberton, and Drake, is really well done, and I fucking can’t stand Drake. There are solid production aspects at play here, and again, while not spectacular, the main three actors do give it their all.

But when it comes down to it, David O. Russell clearly elected to go for style over substance. The script does have a few decent laughs here and there, including one dark bit that I just found hilarious, but that’s about it. In his quest to recreate the magic he made a decade ago, Russell ripped off the best elements from his own work and mashed them together into a redundant hodgepodge that just makes us yearn for those much better films. Those other movies worked because fun characters were in an interesting environment and had something to say to an audience. Here, they just talk, belaboring every point in hopes of wearing down your defenses. And if you’re going to make a movie about resilient veterans, it might help to give your audience the same degree of credit.

Grade: C

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Is there any hope for the whodunit? Amsterdam Amsterdam Amsterdam Amsterdam? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “The Department of Redundancy Department – Amsterdam

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