David O. Russell’s tempestuous, troublesome real-world temperament often translates to transfixing onscreen turbulence, whether it’s the gee-whiz goofiness of Flirting with Disaster, the enraged satire of Three Kings or stacked-cast dramedies like The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook. Those last two films took Russell to the Academy Awards’ doorstep, winning trophies for his actors but not for him. Perhaps this prompted American Hustle, a project that was seemingly engineered to reverse Russell’s perpetual bridesmaid status but felt like costume design in search of a story. Coincidentally, costume design was one of 10 Oscar categories for which Hustle earned a nomination in 2013 before heading home entirely empty-handed.

Amsterdam is Russell’s first film since 2015’s Joy (for which Jennifer Lawrence received a courtesy Best Actress nomination and which you’d probably forgotten until this very moment). Not only because Russell has reteamed with Hustle co-stars Christian Bale and Robert De Niro (among many, too many, other big-name performers) to adapt a true tale of crime does Amsterdam feel like another futile attempt to acquire a shiny statue for himself. 

Here, Russell attempts to blend a daffy, doddering detective story at a pivotal political moment a la The Big Lebowski, the star-for-every-scene approach of Wes Anderson, his own affinity for creating extemporaneous chaos, and a third-act turn into timely sentiments of anti-fascism. It’s not a bad idea on its face, combining comic screwiness and a caffeinated caper to pinpoint the provenance of nutball zealotry primed to zotz America right into the dustbin at any given second. But Amsterdam is a logorrheic mess of endless words and discordant music to accompany them. The Anderson film Amsterdam seeks to emulate most is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which folded heralds of doom into its humor and hit with a hefty haymaker at the end. Here, Russell feints and telegraphs his punches for two hours, hoping you’ll be too distracted by all the famous faces introducing each round to recognize a flimsy fight card.

Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a doctor providing prosthetics and decidedly illicit pain medicine in New York circa 1933 for fellow soldiers mangled in World War I. Burt lost his own right eye overseas, replaced by a glass prosthetic around which the stippled skin looks like Dr. Frankenstein performed shaky self-surgery. His sweetest friend and attorney is Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), who has been Burt’s best buddy since the day they brokered peace amid racial animus in their military unit and then left chunks of their flesh on a European battlefield.

They’re planning a veterans’ reunion gala when their keynote speaker, Sen. Bill Meekins (Ed Begley, Jr.), suddenly dies. Their plans are further complicated after Meekins’ daughter (Taylor Swift) asks Bill to perform a secretive autopsy before the body is laid to rest, as she is certain her father was murdered. Indeed, Burt discovers Bill was methodically poisoned over time. But when attempting to present his findings, he and Harold are themselves framed for murder and go on the run from a pair of persistent detectives (Matthias Schoenarts and Alessandro Nivola).

It’s here that Russell flashes back to 1918, when Burt and Harold first met and found themselves under the care of Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse who goes to great pains to preserve the metal removed from their mangled bodies. Valerie is an artist attempting to reappropriate weapons of war as found art, and she’s also a wealthy expatriate eager to avoid returning to her rich family in America if she can help it. If any segment of Amsterdam sings, it’s this one. Robbie and Washington’s romantic chemistry floats above the bulky ballast, and Russell intriguingly questions what is truly more liberating to the human spirit – a democratic America that’s often eager to destroy itself or a politically hodgepodged Europe where people can still carve cozy pockets of happiness amid the tumult.

This time spent together in Amsterdam almost feels like a dream for Burt, Howard and Valerie, a fluttering eyelid before a freshly triggered alarm of fascism awakens the world. Certainly, this segment of the film plays like a bohemian rhapsody. But then Rami Malek, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Chris Rock, Timothy Olyphant and Andrea Riseborough all arrive with varying degrees of too much, or too little, to do when Russell snaps back to the mystery in the 1930s. 

Naturally, Burt and Howard’s flight reunites them with the long-lost Valerie. Their collective climb up the ladder of the well-connected leads both to the dangerously enigmatic Committee of the 5 and the well-respected General Bill Dillenbeck (De Niro), who becomes bait to lure out a cabal of American Nazi sympathizers who are aiming to foment global chaos. 

Among Russell’s regular repertory players, the director has most often used De Niro as his rabbit’s foot, casting him in every film since Silver Linings Playbook. Here, De Niro is treated like the third act’s ace in the hole, given how that act is hung on Dillenbeck’s safety while delivering a big speech at the veterans gala. At every point, De Niro presents the pained countenance of someone reading cue cards for a Saturday Night Live skit about which he holds deep, resentful reservations. The actor boasted more enthusiasm introducing Diddy Dirty Money on that show than he does in any moment here, seemingly annoyed by sharing one scene with Myers in particular. (That joke’s on De Niro, though; given how boring so much of the foreground action becomes in Amsterdam, you’ll look at all those big names in the background to see who appears engaged with what’s transpiring, and Myers is unquestionably the MVP. Meanwhile, Rock often looks like he’s in need of a toilet he cannot find.)

The pieces of Amsterdam’s mystery are easy to assemble, too, as is the identity of its (most) evil orchestrators. It only seems complicated because Russell is endlessly slowing down the film when it should be speeding up, especially the climactic gala sequence that never jumps, jives or wails. The mystery plot is perpetually lost amid a mostly pointless parade of supporting stars, in which only Myers and Saldaña march to memorable beats. As for Bale in the lead, it’s nice to see him unclench again a la Thor: Love and Thunder, but Russell too often cuts to Burt’s preoccupation with the proper placement of his prosthetic eye in a way that undercuts the emotion of a scene and the project’s alleged purpose.

A profoundly silly scream-singing battle, between German nationalists and Robbie, Washington and Rock leading a chorus of “America (My Country Tis of Thee),” could perhaps be written off as Burt’s synapses firing during one of his drug-fueled fantasias. But it mostly feels like Russell trying to ratchet up his point to levels more embarrassing than effective, like marbles haphazardly shaken and shot around the murk and mystery of America’s political manipulation and machination. Amsterdam tries very hard to depict the battle for the soul of a nation as a clash of conviction between the fringe, where feelings of kindness are fostered, and the frontlines of power trying to ferret all of that out to their own fetid ends. But if the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, the triumph of boredom is for good directors to do nothing movies about evil like Amsterdam, which ultimately amounts to a dull, disjointed allegory about altruism.