Enjoyable Performances Can’t Save David O. Russell’s Undercooked Movie

Beyond the aforementioned issues, “Amsterdam” also has to face a very large elephant in a regrettably small room. While David O. Russell’s work has often received a strong critical reception, the filmmaker nonetheless has a troubling legacy of behavior both on-and-off set. It’s tempting to argue that an artist’s behaviors shouldn’t impact the perception of their work, mainly because it’s a convenient and easy argument to make. At the same time, accountability genuinely matters. Refusing to acknowledge dangerously inappropriate tendencies enables them. As a film critic, ignoring these elements involves a willful blindness, but shouldn’t such criticism involve a commitment to tell a critic’s “truth” about how they see a project and its limitations?  

Russell’s reported history of aggressive and inappropriate behaviors has a long and well-chronicled history (see here). The New York Times reports accounts of Russell’s fistfights with George Clooney and Christopher Nolan. There is a long history of witnesses corroborating claims of abusive on-set outbursts against actors like comedy legend Lily Tomlin (caught on video), Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams. The most troubling account comes in early 2012, when the director’s transgender niece Nicole Peloquin filed a police report that Russell sexually assaulted her at a Florida gym on December 30, 2011. Russell even admitted to groping Peloquin to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office but denied wrongdoing, and no charges were filed. 

Witnesses and recorded admissions aside, Russell has never been truly held accountable for these reported actions. It’s a trend that’s emblematic of the darker tendencies of Hollywood history, and to not highlight it is to reinforce that exact culture of silence. For “Amsterdam,” however, it also creates a particularly troubling irony at the film’s very heart. At its core, “Amsterdam” centers a diverse trio of outcasted protagonists who thwart a plan by powerful, unaccountable men to install an unaccountable fascist government in the U.S. As a critic I’m inclined to love any film that shows the downfalls of fascists against a band of plucky outsiders, but it’s hard to ignore the deep irony of a movie that criticizes attempts to lord dangerous unaccountable power yet is directed by a filmmaker with a reputation for unaccountable abuses himself. It’s an irony that undercuts the film’s most important element: its message. In conjunction with the film’s other issues, “Amsterdam” falters.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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