What is it that happens when you get all the parts you need for a great movie, and it just won’t come together? Did the director fit things together incorrectly, did the actors blow it and not commit to the parts? Maybe the score just doesn’t fit with the tone. A chef can tell you that having the right ingredients is not all you need for a perfect dish, and “Amsterdam” is a good example of that metaphor being correct. If you look at all the parts separately, it sounds like it is going to be great. Somewhere in the process of assembling it, something went wrong. The film is not bad, it’s just not good.
I frequently use comparisons in my reasoning about a film because the things that I make comparison to should be familiar to the reader and help them understand the points I am trying to make. When people say “you shouldn’t compare things”, I get their point, a thing should be judged on what it is, the problem is that you can’t always figure out what something is without a comparable product. So allow me to make a comparison for you now that I think will help. “Amsterdam” feels like a Wes Anderson film without looking like a Wes Anderson film. There are kooky characters, outrageous scenarios, humorous quips and asides, and a great collection of actors, but there is not the same frenetic energy, warm color palate, and quirky visual detail to distract you from potential flaws in the storytelling. This movie wants to be embraced as an eccentric comedy, but it is just not warm and fuzzy enough, and it is trying too hard to be those things.
Writer/Director David O. Russell is a talented film maker, but his script here attempts to turn a historical incident into a major threat, although the incident was viewed by many as a hoax, cocktail plotting, and a big laugh. If the real people involved were anything like the characters in this film, we’d have even less to have worried about because of incompetence. If we overlook the real events, and just accept that this is a story inspired by those events, I suppose it would be more palatable, so I will do that. The premise now becomes that “Jules and Jim” prevented the overthrow of the U.S. government by fascist industrialists who admired Mussolini and Hitler. I suppose this might seem relevant to anyone who took the nutjobs of January 6 seriously, but otherwise it is an indulgence to make us laugh.
The thing I find so disappointing is that I did laugh at things happening in the film, but they had little to do with the plot. Christian Bale spends half his time making puns and quips that are entertaining enough, but they can’t compete with the visual jokes that come from his glass eye. When it starts looking around independently of what the character is doing, it was hysterical. John David Washington has no real flair for comedy in this film, undermining what goodwill might have followed from “BlacKkKlansman”. Margot Robbie feels like she is reprising Harley Quinn, just less obviously. All of them seem on screen to think what they are doing is a hoot, although much of the time it is just spinning wheels going nowhere. Robert DeNiro’s deliberate manner and clipped way of delivering his lines as General Dillenbeck, also emphasizes how the movie wants us to see humor in things that are not particularly funny.
I enjoyed the movie as a minor work by some talented film makers, but they all seem to be putting in energy that is not paying off in the way they want it to. It’s hard to say what does not work, but I can say that some of it did, just not enough for me to encourage anyone to add this to their list.
Let me start off with a couple of justifications. This is a Netflix created project, designed to be shown on their streaming service. As such, there are doubts about whether it should be included in my usual project since I try to focus on theatrical material. Last year I participated in some spirited discussions of “Roma” based on the premise that it is not “cinema”. This seems oddly ironic given the take Martin Scorsese has on the comic book movies that dominate theaters these days. Unlike “Roma” however, I did see this in a theater and it was an exclusive run before any streaming of it on the home network is available. The major theater chains were unwilling to book this without a traditional window of exclusive exhibition, so I still think my doubts are relevant. There are some mitigating issues however. First, this is a Martin Scorsese project and he clearly sees it as a film. Second, I have made exceptions in the past about what I cover on this site and I have written about documentaries or “films” made for premium channels in the past. I have also covered related material, concerts for instance that are inspired by movies. So my rules are a little flexible. Finally, I think the battle will be lost in the next few years and I will be doomed to be a collaborator in the destruction of the cinema going experience by day and date VOD, so I may as well start kowtowing now to get into practice. I will still scream about it but lets face it, my finger in the dike is will not stop it.
Last night’s screening at the Egyptian was sold out, there was not a seat to be had and there were people standing in the wings, the whole time the movie was playing. Anticipation was high and I was quite excited about seeing the film. It is a solid piece of gangster story telling told by the master of that genre, but it is not the masterpiece of his career. The three and a half hour running time is very noticeable, especially in the last forty minutes of the movie. This could easily be broken into two parts for the television mini series presentation it probably deserves. The sprawling story covers five decades and it is told through a series of flashbacks and forwards that also make the pacing seem slower than it actually is. The fact that the finale plays out in one long sequence with the main character in a wheelchair dying of cancer, feels anti climatic although it does contain some of the only moments of emotion that the main character exhibits.
“Mean Streets” was low level street gangsters, “Goodfellas” was gangsters on drugs, “Casino” was gangsters and gambling, “The Departed” was gangsters with police corruption, “Gangs of New York” was historical gangsters and “The Irishman” is gangsters and unions. The same template that was used for “GoodFellas” and “Casino” is found here. We are given a narrator who is telling us the story as we see it play out. There are beats of violence every few minutes and grim humor pops up occasionally to keep it entertaining. The actors are all fine, but this movie lacks some of the grace points of those previous classics. The bravura one take Steadicam nightclub scene in “Goodfellas” was a moment that made that film special. There is no equivalent film making technique here. Joe Pesci was lightning on screen in both “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, no such character exists in this trudge through Teamster/Mafia politics of the 60s and 70s. Sharon Stone was a dynamic female character in “Casino” there are virtually no important women characters featured in this story. The pacing of those two movies, especially in the last segments built into a crescendo that made us quickly in hale to try to catch our breath. “The Irishman” does little to keep us from nodding off at the end except hope that we care how Frank manages to reconcile himself with the world.
Joe Pesci came out of semi-retirement to make the movie, but his character could have been done by any number of actors. His unique volatility and vocal delivery is never called upon by Scorsese to make the film sing. Harvey Kietel is in the movie, but I will be amazed if you remember that at the conclusion of the running time. His character is so far in the background that we only know what he thinks through his orders being repeated by those he supposedly conveyed them to. Robert DeNiro is the star of the film, and he turns in a credible performance but nothing close to earlier work in this milieu. The character of Frank Sheeran is a cipher in most of his scenes. DeNiro is trying to make a nearly personality free low level thug into an interesting character, but it is only the alleged acts of violence he claims to have carried out that make him noticeable. The hollow award that the character gets during his time as a union president would be hard to justify given the lack of any outgoing charisma.
The actor who scores best in the film is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Having been parodied for years for his throaty overacting in recent films, Pacino is more realistic here. There are a few scenes where the bellicose Hoffa goes off but Pacino plays them in character rather than making him a character. The rest of the time he seems to be a committed and forceful man who was too pig headed to notice that those closest to him were the ones who were the most dangerous. The simple scenes that Pacino plays opposite DeNiro’s on screen daughter are the ones that sell us on him as a real person. The contrast in the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran’s family versus Pesci and DeNiro who mimic family love but can’t really sell it, that is the best directed part of the film, but it’s only enough to make Pacino’s character come to life, not enough to make the film do so.
Two other things that I saw as drawbacks to the film include the early de-aging CGI and the musical score. I got used to the CGI miracle after a few minutes, but that does not mean that it worked perfectly. As this technology gets better, I think actors will have to be careful because they could be replaced by AI created performers that might get us to respond to them by reading analytics of audience reactions. The other mild complaint is the score by Robbie Robertson. Maybe it is a good thing that there is no memorable theme or consistent melody running through th film story, but I think that makes it harder to feel the film is memorable. The only bits that were significant to me were the doo wop clips and the background music in particular scenes. Jerry Vale was the musical high note of the film, and while he was a fine vocalist, I don’t think that is enough to hang your musical hat on for a film.
In summary, you have seen this before and it has been better done in other Scorsese films, but that does not make this a bad movie. The film is quite good and it almost convinces us that this is the real story. All of the performances are solid but nothing historic that people will look back on and say, “that was a milestone” in that guys career. The history lesson we get of mob infiltration of the unions works pretty well at getting to the heart of the idea, even if the details are invented. There is enough blood and betrayal to clearly mark this as a Scorsese film, but in the end, most of out characters get wacked by cancer and heart disease rather than other mob guys or the cops. It is a little indulgent but a story that is pretty well told using tried and true techniques we have experienced many times before.