Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons
Runtime: 132 Minutes
When Adam McKay made The Big Short back in 2015, it felt for all the world that we might have possibly found a successor to Oliver Stone’s mantel as a deeply fascinating dramatist and labyrinthine political examiner.
But, in a manner similar to the late fall of Stone, McKay and co. have disappointingly decided to cast their gaze back to the Bush administration. Specifically, the life of former US Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), one of the most widely reviled western political figures in recent history, and one of the most powerful men to ever not be positioned as POTUS.
The reason for saying that it feels like more than just a missed opportunity comes twofold. One is that the actual personal life of Cheney as an individual, never mind his various relationships and dealings with those in office, isn’t that widely document or understood, and as such the film openly admits in an opening caption that a lot of it should be viewed more as pure drama than fact but they “did their fucking best”.
This feels gravely at odds with the film desperately wanting to discuss relatively recent history with the audience and reminding them of why these mistakes of judgement were made and have been made again since, but it leads nicely into the other big problem the film has, and that lies in its presentation.
What worked about The Big Short and its focus on the financial crash of the late 2000s was that its condescending manner of ‘you’re too stupid to understand this so let me walk you through it with celebrity cameos’ worked because the event in and of itself was so immensely complicated to come to terms with for most people.
But with Vice, that sentiment doesn’t hold up as well considering the only point that it ends up making is by reminding people of how bad that administration was, and how much Cheney royally fucked and abused the system for his own gains and the those of his like-minded big business contemporaries – which is already widely held knowledge at this point.
There’s a recurring analogy throughout the film about a string of strategic decisions being made comparable to the stacking of teacups, with one false move sending it all toppling down, and at around the point in which that metaphor comes to manifest itself in the film, it’s also the moment in which the film finally drops all of its plates at once in catastrophic fashion in the final movement.
From the boneheaded reveal of the narration gimmick with Jesse Plemons, to a mid-credits stinger that’s so utterly tone-deaf and flailing in execution as it shows McKay’s uncomfortably smug contempt for the audience by blaming the audience for allowing the here and now to get as bad as it is by going to watch the Fast & Furious movies of all things.
However, McKay is nothing if not a visual virtuoso when it comes to his presentation methods of pop culture and medium smashing artistry to make his points clear. Sure, a lot of it is achingly obvious to take in as he draws both visual and thematic parallels between moments and sequences to convey an idea – that paired with his lowering of stature technique to freeze frame otherwise important individuals in moments of slack-jawed awkwardness – and a lot of the time his intention to garner a laugh does, in fact, pay off.
In the film’s most executed joke, McKay allows the film to fulfil an entire three-act structure of a traditionally paced and plotted redemption biopic in the film’s first hour, complete with its own wrap-up caption card ending and closing credits sequence, only to snap back to the surprise call from Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush asking him to be VP for his 2000 campaign, and the film takes a drastic shift in tone toward the nightmare reality that ended up unfolding. Paired with Nicholas Britell’s score, the film feels surprisingly sinister at key moments.
What information it does manage to parse over, including Cheney’s endorsement of the Unitary executive theory and his surprising acceptance of his openly gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill), does keep the surface level entertainment value at a high even while running too long.
The performances are uniformly good, but that is to be expected of an award angling film of this calibre. Bale is insidiously excellent here as the weezing gasbag with his mannerisms and speech patterns exuding alien menace, Adams is quietly commanding as Lynne Cheney, Rockwell is pitch-perfect as an underused Bush, and Carell is fun as Donald Rumsfeld walking away with one of the most ridiculous villains laughs in years.
Were Vice removed from the umbrella of the award season, this fashion show of bombastic performance impressions with ridiculous makeup would be a straight-up farce – and in many ways it is. It’s uneven, overlong, head-smashingly obvious and smug in a way that’s nowhere near as insightful or helpful as it thinks it is. But it is a good performance showcase, and McKay still has the goods as a storyteller even if his intentions feel more than a little ill-founded this time.