A global music sensation. A recently-slapped comedy legend. An indie “It” girl. A retired Batman. And Barbie herself. These performers are the stuff of movie marketers’ dreams, and also what the Walt Disney Company has at its disposal with “Amsterdam.” It’s a film from established auteur David O. Russell, whose reputation for delivering the goods allowed him to attract a murderer’s row of talent that includes Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift and Robert De Niro.
And yet, the film, bolstering more stars than in the heavens, to quote an old line — and a budget that’s upwards of $80 million — is arriving in theaters having been pulverized by the critics who have published so far and hoping to rescue its investment by overcoming the reviews to be a commercial success.
The film, with a 33% “rotten” ranking on Rotten Tomatoes (there are only six reviews so far), is set to premiere in theaters on Oct. 7, and is looking at an opening weekend of $17 million to $20 million, according to pre-release tracking. That would be a respectable result in still-lingering pandemic conditions, although some rival studio sources believe the notices will take a bite out of ticket sales and that word-of-mouth will depress results.
The solid tracking is surprising because the buzz on “Amsterdam,” a period crime story that on paper seemed like a sure-fire Oscar contender, is deadly. Initial reviews have been harsh, with The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calling it “a lot of movies inelegantly squidged into one,” TheWrap’s Robert Abele branding it a “flat, unfunny misfire,” and Variety‘s Peter Debruge predicting that audiences will be asking themselves, “‘What the hell is happening?’ for the better part of 134 minutes.”
These are not the kind of rave reviews that Russell has historically enjoyed over the course of his career. In fact, the high-wire auteur’s ability to blend pathos and absurdity has led to three Academy Award nominations for hits such as “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter” and “American Hustle.” And yet, it is Russell himself, who appears to have been granted a blank check to realize his idiosyncratic vision with the lavishly produced “Amsterdam,” who may be sinking his latest feature.
In particular, the director’s long-documented tendency to erupt at cast and crew on set (this is a man who nearly came to blows with the usually mild-mannered George Clooney, after all) have not aged well in the modern era. Fans of Swift and Robbie have taken to social media, asking why the actresses have been willing to work with Russell given that video exists of him berating Lily Tomlin during the making of “I Heart Huckabees.” Russell and Tomlin reconciled the day of that YouTube-immortalized blowout, insiders say, and the director and Clooney have also buried the hatchet.
Compounding matters, however, is a 2011 incident in which Russell was accused of groping his then-19-year old transgender niece. Russell confirmed the incident occurred but said it was consensual, the L.A. Times reported. Insiders say that Russell was well behaved during the making of “Amsterdam” and there were no incidents involving the director, who also avoided flareups on his previous effort, “Joy.”
Further puzzling to industry observers was “Amsterdam’s” absence from every major fall film festival, including such splashy launchpads as Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Insiders say that the film was not completed in time for Venice, where its backers felt it would garner the best reception. It opted not to appear at Toronto, believing that the gathering fell too late on the calendar to raise its profile (one insider noted that bringing the film to Canada would have been tough, given that the picture locked the day before the festival started). In light of early reactions, the studio’s decision to try to reposition “Amsterdam” as a commercial play and not a critical one may have been a wise maneuver.
To be fair, adult-skewing dramas, even those with glowing notices, have not fared all that well during the pandemic. At one point, aware of the challenging COVID-era theatrical landscape and cognizant of the wallet-busting deals being scored by other films that were once designed to be purely theatrical plays, New Regency, its primary financier, had preliminary discussions with streamers about a possible sale. This was a time, after all, that movies like “Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Borat 2” and “Without Remorse” were being sold off to the likes of Netflix and Amazon for more money than they would ever have been able to reap at the box office. Ultimately those talks were abandoned and New Regency came to believe that a major theatrical release presented the best distribution option for “Amsterdam.”
Some of the negative chatter around the movie stems from an abrupt August decision by Disney to push up the film’s release date from Nov. 4 to Oct 7. Those moves raised questions about the studio’s faith in the film. The decision, according to the source, was to avoid competition from juggernauts like Disney’s Black Panther sequel “Wakanda Forever,” as well as other streaming and theatrical awards contenders including “My Policeman,” “Blonde,” “White Noise” and “She Said.” Some competitors have wondered why “Amsterdam” is being marketed like a highbrow farce instead of a glossy murder mystery in the vein of “Knives Out.” The film, which is set during the Depression, involves three friends who become prime suspects in the killing of a powerful senator.
Disney has poured tens of millions into marketing “Amsterdam,” including hosting premieres in New York and London. The former attracted 1,100 attendees at Alice Tully Hall, including Academy and guild members, and saw an afterparty hosted by Drake (Swift was absent from the event). Tastemaker screenings in Los Angeles have been held, and pricey ad buys during NFL and NCAA games as well as on big fall TV premieres like “The Voice” and “Law & Order” have also been secured.
If all that hype pays off with a big opening weekend, it will have been money well spent. But if audiences steer clear of “Amsterdam,” Russell’s next project may not get the same kind of money to realize his big screen dreams.