Movie review

Sometimes, you go to a party that’s full of interesting people and nonetheless you can’t wait to go home, because the evening seems completely off: Conversations feel stilted, the food is strange, things just don’t click and your armchair beckons. Such is the case with David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam,” a movie that’s so awkward to watch I got social anxiety just from being in the same room with it. It looks great, it’s crammed with terrific actors, and it’s a mess. I have no idea what party Russell and the cast thought they were attending; in any case, this isn’t it.

Beginning with the cheerily informal on-screen note “A lot of this really happened,” “Amsterdam” is a period piece set mostly in 1933 New York. At its center are three friends who met while serving in World War I: Burt (Christian Bale), a doctor; Harold (John David Washington), an attorney; and Valerie (Margot Robbie), a former wartime nurse who’s now, I don’t know, a full-time sultry presence. Things get underway with Harold calling Burt in to assist with a mysterious autopsy — filmed with enough meaty, spongy close-up to put one right off one’s popcorn — of someone Burt and Harold met during the war. There’s a fight, a sudden death — and off we go backward in time, to the war overseas and to the city of the film’s title, where pieces of the trio’s puzzle begin to fall into place. Sort of.

I’m being vague about the plot partly to avoid spoilers, and partly because I genuinely am not sure exactly what was going on through much of the film, other than a lot of attractive people intoning lines that they often seemed to be making up on the spot. (Everyone speaks in an oddly stylized way, like they might burst into song. Except mostly they don’t, more’s the pity.) Russell, whose recent career has encompassed both hits (“The Silver Linings Playbook”) and misses (“Joy”), can’t seem to settle on a tone or a genre, so he chooses all of them: “Amsterdam” veers uneasily between comedy, thriller, caper, mystery, earnest ode to friendship, war drama and all-of-the-above-at-the-same-time. “Where is this going?” I wrote in my notes, after a minor character demonstrated a fetish for another character’s scars; the question was never satisfactorily answered even as the credits rolled.

“Amsterdam” is not entirely without small pleasures: Emmanuel Lubezki’s sepia-toned cinematography is lovely to look at, and it’s fun to play spot-the-movie-star with the talented cast, and to note with pleasure how Washington’s scratched-velvet voice sounds so much like that of his father Denzel. But ultimately it’s a big disappointment. “Bird-watching forces you to decide what you are looking at,” says a character played by Michael Shannon (yes, there are bird-watchers in this movie). It’s a shame the filmmaker, apparently, never made that decision.   

“Amsterdam” ★½ (out of four)

With Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Alessandro Nivola, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldaña, Rami Malek and Robert De Niro. Written and directed by David O. Russell. 127 minutes. R for brief violence and bloody images. Opens Oct. 7 at multiple theaters.