Vice Review

The prestige of the “The Big Short” clearly got to Adam McKay’s head. The “Anchorman” director and longtime Will Ferrell comedy partner earned an Oscar for adapting Michael Lewis’ book about the housing crisis into a clever and accessible movie. In “Vice,” he attempts to apply those same storytelling principles to a biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney. It doesn’t work the same way.

McKay begins “Vice” with a few disclaimers that immediately call attention to the bias with which he’s presenting the events of Cheney’s life. Having researched and written the film entirely himself, the truth is entirely from his perspective. In this sense, being so forthright was probably the right move, but this is still such a stark contrast from the political biopics we’re used to, which normally hold up authenticity as most important. Inadvertently, buying into the film is much harder than it might otherwise be.

With Christian Bale transforming himself to play Cheney and a supporting cast that includes Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, that’s also a signifier of a film that would presumably be taking itself seriously, but obviously that’s far from the case. McKay takes his work seriously, but he aspires to a tone that borders on mockery, if not of the characters than of the biopic genre. Using Jesse Plemons as a narrator with a mysterious connection to Cheney and a few other outside-the-narrative techniques, he’s simultaneously presenting the story and providing explanation and commentary.

The result is a screenplay that’s smart, but extremely busy. The story ranges from the 1960s to the 2000s, jumping back and forth to show juicy moments that McKay feels are germane to how Cheney became power-hungry for the sake of power, a hypothesis he both crafts and proves by his own hand. This total disinterest in remaining humbly objective toward its subject is what makes “Vice” sizzle in some moments and fall far short of compelling in others. McKay’s case for who Cheney was is not subtly persuasive, allowing audiences to come to his same conclusions on their own, but rather blunt and aggressive.

Instead, the subtlety is left to the Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated performers. Bale completely loses himself in creating Cheney, capturing how utterly boring and non-compelling Cheney was as a public figure. Adams gets the slightly showier role as his accomplice if not the Lady to his Macbeth (alluded to more explicitly in one of McKay’s more outside-the-box scenes). And Rockwell as Bush, in his brief screen time, makes you wonder what Oliver Stone’s “W.” could’ve really been like with the right casting.

Screenwriters have tried harder and harder to veer off the well-beaten path of the biopic, and for good reason, but McKay’s preferred stylings and voice worked much better when, like in “The Big Short,” his characters were small-time oddball nobodies–complete underdogs who got the last laugh at the expense of corporate scumbags. Now, he’s trying to tell a story the same way, but focused on all the scumbags, only half the country doesn’t see them as scumbags. I can only imagine what Conservatives thought of this movie as McKay goes after not just Cheney and Bush, but three other decades of Republican administrations.

“Vice” is sharply written, directed, edited and acted, but the finished product, while it has fangs, it’s strangely unengaging. Unless the movie experience you crave is catharsis in the form of two hours’ worth of finely crafted jabs at soulless politicians, there’s little else in the way of surprises and insight. It shines a light on a public figure who would’ve preferred to remain in the shadows, and leaves us with a new myth about him on which there’s probably more light to be shed.  

2/5 Stars

Written and Directed by Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry


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