In October 2022, acclaimed writer-director David O. Russel released his latest effort, Amsterdam, a film so star-studded that the one-sheet was designed as a block of names. It looks more like an end credit crawl than a movie theater poster:
“Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola, with Rami Malek and Robert DeNiro.”
With a cast that mighty, Amsterdam was a shoo-in. How could it possibly fail? Yet, fail it did. Even with that ridiculously impressive cast, the studio couldn’t wrangle the film’s multitude of tones into a marketable genre. And with losses near $100 million, Amsterdam became one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.
Critics Had Mixed Feelings About Amsterdam
Critics were also unimpressed with Russell’s latest film. Many cited Amsterdam’s convoluted narrative as its crucial flaw. But curiously, the cast received praise, especially its star Christian Bale, Judy Becker’s production design, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, and Daniel Pemberton’s score. Let that sink in for a moment. Critics liked the way the film looked, they liked how it sounded, and they liked who was in it. But they still didn’t like it. What kind of consensus can be drawn from a discrepancy like that? That Amsterdam may be a mess, but at least it’s a beautiful mess?
Since critics found plenty to like in Amsterdam, it’s almost like they didn’t want to discard the film entirely. Just its screenplay by David O. Russell. And its direction — again, David O. Russell. Clearly, it was Russell’s head on a spike that critics wanted. At least, that’s the takeaway you might have gotten from the vulture-like tone of the headlines that circled in on Amsterdam during its opening weekend.
Those headlines spurred comments from Martin Scorsese who condemned Hollywood’s “repulsive” box office obsession with how much money theatrical films make in their opening weekends and overseas. Scorsese does make a fair point — opening weekends aren’t everything.
Other Box Office Bombs Have Attained Cult Classic Status
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is currently the highest rated film on IMDb, a spot it has held for years. But when it comes to the highest grossing films of 1994, the film is all the way down at #95. It made less money than My Girl 2 (1994) at #83. Come on. More people went to see My Girl 2 than The Shawshank Redemption?
Even the Little Women (1994) adaptation with Winona Ryder and Christian Bale (in the role that Timothée Chalamet played in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 remake) made more money than Shawshank. This includes opening weekend and overall grosses.
Given that critics had mixed feelings about Amsterdam, will it eventually be dusted off and reconsidered? Will it one day sit among cult classics like Shawshank, Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Blade Runner (1982), The Princess Bride (1987), and The Big Lebowski (1998)? Or is Amsterdam doomed to be ignored by audiences of the future, even when it is inevitably dumped onto one of their streaming subscriptions?
Good Characters Make or Break a Cult Classic
While it may be too soon to know for sure whether Amsterdam will become a cult classic, there is another film from another acclaimed auteur filmmaker which faced remarkably similar criticism for its convoluted narrative. Ever since it bombed at the box office in 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice has gained traction as a modern cult classic for its quirky humor, ensemble cast, and incredible central performance from Joaquin Phoenix as Larry “Doc” Sportello; the hippie P.I. pitted against a conspiracy as half-baked as the real-life one that the fictional protagonists uncover in Amsterdam.
In a Q&A at the Lincoln Center for Inherent Vice, Anderson admitted that he was so impressed with his cast that he often discarded traditional scene coverage, relying instead on slow push-in shots for many long dialogue scenes. For the director, these long and uninterrupted shots killed two birds with one stone: they trudged through the film’s dense plot while allowing the viewer more time to “hang out” with the characters. Like Anderson did on Inherent Vice, Russell leaned heavily on long and uninterrupted shots with Amsterdam. During Q&A for Amsterdam at the DGA, Russell said:
“We’re always trying to capture something that’s alive. If it doesn’t feel alive, it’s not interesting. One of the goals is to try to do it in one [shot]. To have it all happen like a play, in one. So it’s an unbroken reality. As often as possible, how can something play in one?”
The trajectory of Inherent Vice might just be Russell’s last glimmer of hope for Amsterdam to eventually find its audience, which it very well could. That’s because cult classics live and die by the strength of their characters. Be it Shawshank, Rocky Horror, Blade Runner, Princess Bride, or Lebowski, cults are formed around people, not plots, and Amsterdam is full of them.
That strength may ultimately have less to do with how well those characters are integrated into the plot and more to do with whether viewers simply enjoy spending time with the characters. Steve Buscemi and John Turturro’s characters have no bearing on the plot of The Big Lebowski whatsoever. Yet, Donny and Jesus Quintana, respectively, have become two of the actors’ most iconic roles.
The Characters in Amsterdam Are Fun to Hang Out With
Funny enough, this question of character likability is similar to the real-life phenomenon of American voters often choosing their presidential candidates based on who they’d rather “grab a beer with,” rather than their qualifications for the job.
Let’s face it. The critics are right that the plot of Amsterdam is an enormous mess. All the same, the film has a wonderfully colorful cast of characters that aren’t just quirky. They’re good company. According to Christian Bale, this “grab a beer” likability factor was one of his and Russell’s original intentions for his central character, Dr. Burt Berendsen. Speaking to BBC radio announcer Simon Mayo on an episode of the Kermode and Mayo’s Take podcast, Bale said:
“[Russell and I] wanted to create a character that we just really wanted to be friends with ourselves.”
Whatever else critics might throw at Amsterdam, Russell and Bale did at least succeed in their attempt to bring a central character to the screen that the viewer would want to be friends with. Next to Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt’s Oscar-winning performance in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood), Burt is one of the most fun characters to hang out with in modern cinema. It’s a shame that Burt is trapped in such a disappointing film. Bale’s character deserved to be in a hit.
With box office profits of $1.4 billion and universal critical acclaim, Top Gun: Maverick faced the exact opposite reception as Amsterdam. Structurally, the plot of Maverick is lean and whittled down to perfection, the exact opposite of Amsterdam. But which lead character would you rather have a beer with? Tom Cruise’s Maverick, a world-class fighter pilot who looks eerily like a male model in a beer commercial? Or Christian Bale’s Burt, a disheveled, pill-popping doctor with a heart of gold and a Columbo-style glass eye? Depending on how people answer that question, Amsterdam may be buying the next round.