This image is from the official trailer for “Amsterdam,” distributed by 20th Century Studios.

Imagine if someone made the plot of a movie into a jigsaw puzzle, mixed up the pieces, hid half of them and then asked you to use the remaining pieces to cook a five-course meal. If that analogy made no sense to you, then you know how “Amsterdam” made me feel.

“Amsterdam” takes place in 1930s New York City and tells the story of WWI veterans Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale, “Vice”), Harold Woodsman (John David Washington, “Tenet”) and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie, “Birds of Prey”), who investigate the death of their former commander Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr., “Better Caul Saul”). The all-star cast of supporting characters includes Taylor Swift (“Cats”), Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split”), Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”), Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and many more. After the police accuse Burt and Harold of Bill’s murder, the trio runs all over New York in order to clear their names. They eventually tie the murder to a fascist conspiracy to overthrow the American Government led by the Council of Five, a group of industry leaders with ties to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

This film is a textbook case of a screenplay that was written without constraint. It feels much longer than its 134-minute runtime. The scene-by-scene pacing varies from deathly urgent to lifelessly slow. The plot is overcomplicated and under-explained, randomly focusing on plot points that never return or become important. It will throw in an extended sequence of the main trio in Amsterdam — hence the title of the movie — but never acknowledge the scene again outside of a few passing comments. The movie seems to want to be the next Great American Film but never stops to consider how the story it’s telling actually relates to the essence of America. It wants the audience to reflect on how people of all backgrounds shape the country, but then fails to give us characters with complex backgrounds. The film ends with a speech given by De Niro’s character, General Dillenbeck, that lambasts fascists for attempting to take over the country. This is meant to be a triumphant moment commenting on how the enduring spirit of America will never be overcome, but because the film does not set up the necessary themes, it instead feels like a hollow rant with a tangential relationship to the rest of the story.

The acting is also terrible, especially for a high-budget film full of such talented individuals. The audience’s first introduction to this comes from Swift’s performance as Liz Meekins. Her melodramatic line deliveries feel directly out of a soap opera. Important scenes vital to the establishment of the plot become cringe-inducing moments as the audience has to watch Swift attempt to and fail at convincingly crying. Swift’s poor performance is understandable given that her experience is largely with music, not movies, but I was still thankful that she is only in a handful of scenes.

Where the performances get out of control is when Washington and Robbie get more screen time. Both award-nominated performers give the worst performances of their careers. Washington’s face barely moves as he delivers his every line in a dull, monotone voice. Robbie is a talented accent performer, yet throughout the movie she wildly switches between her native Australian accent, a New York accent and what sounds like a British accent. Just one of these performances I could chalk up to a fluke, but all of them together reveals a deeper problem with the movie. Even the actors and actresses without glaring flaws give performances that feel stilted and unrehearsed. The star-studded cast leads me to assume that it wasn’t the fault of the performers, but instead that of the director for leaving the tone and goal of the film unclear. 

“Amsterdam” wants to tackle many genres. It wants to be a period whodunit, investigating the murder of Meekins, a deadpan, screwball comedy that explores the lives of soldiers post-WWI and a dramatic thriller about a fascist conspiracy to take over the U.S. In its attempt to be all three of these movies, it fails to be any of them. The film is unable to juggle the different storylines and associated themes in any coherent way. The plot’s driving force is Meekins’ murder, but a third of the way in, that thread is dropped for an extended sequence exploring the relationships between Burt, Harold and Valerie. Then there’s the baffling choice to intermix stonily delivered jokes with serious scenes discussing lofty questions like “What is love?” and “How should humanity react to the rise of fascism?” In this mess of plot points and generalized themes, clues and hints about the film’s central mystery are forgotten. The film gives the audience zero information in some scenes while telegraphing answers in such a frustratingly obvious way in others that I wanted to scream at the screen that the characters should have figured it out already.

Everything about this movie screams a complete lack of a coherent vision. It’s hard to distinguish which of the bafflingly bad choices were intentional and which were the result of a complete breakdown on set. The film experienced major delays and changes in production due to COVID-19, but while this might explain the flaws of the movie, it does nothing to eliminate them. I can excuse the small details created by pandemic roadblocks, such as scenes heavily relying on the camera focusing on individual characters because actors couldn’t be in the same room. This could also explain the poor chemistry between characters, as the actors couldn’t interact with each other on set. But these production difficulties don’t justify a total lack of attention to basic storytelling principles. “Amsterdam” is a mix-up of so many different ideas that the story is completely indecipherable.

To call “Amsterdam” one of the worst movies of the year might sound hyperbolic, but the mental pain I felt watching it forces me to prematurely name it so two months before the year is over. This film is such a confusing mess that even after hours spent contemplating, discussing and researching, I am no closer to understanding what caused the trainwreck.

Daily Arts Writer Zach Loveall can be reached at zloveall@umich.edu.