DIR/WRI: Adam McKay • PRO: Megan Ellison, Will Ferrell, Dede Gardner, Jason George, Jeremy Kleiner, Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick, Brad Pitt • DOP: Greig Fraser • ED: Hank Corwin • DES: Patrice Vermette • MUSIC: Nicholas Britell • CAST: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
An earlier teaser for Dick Cheney biopic/satire Vice featured the tagline ‘Some vices are more dangerous than others.” Writer-director Adam McKay’s is that he prefers flashy gimmicks over telling a story that works dramatically. That’s truly dangerous in that it sinks his movie.
Jumping between timelines, the film charts the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), from Yale drop-out and heavy drinker to becoming Vice President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), during 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
After making a name directing Will Ferrell joints, McKay’s previous film, The Big Short employed stylistic flourishes and absurd comedy in moments to jazz up its depiction of what led to the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. The joke was that one needed fourth-wall-breaking cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to explain concepts like subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations because otherwise people would be confused or disinterested. It was fast, funny and ultimately made a salient point about how people today consume information.
Vice doubles down on these techniques without finding a reason to use them. There’s zinger-filled narration from Jesse Plemons (Game Night, Fargo), needless jumping backward and forward in time, endless stock footage inserts, shots created to look like stock-footage inserts, metatextual gags – all of which combined leave the film with no dramatic scene.
Admittedly, some of the jokes are funny on an Airplane parody level, satirising the conventions of biopics. Mid-way through the film, before being recruited to be Bush Jr’s VP, Cheney is shown in the woods with his family vowing to never return to politics. In another movie, the scene would be its closing moment and just as this realisation dawns, fake credits roll – before rewinding back to what really happened. Meanwhile, another laugh-inducing moment imagines Cheney as a Shakespearean anti-hero as he makes a key decision. He and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams wasted in what should have been a third winning collab with Bale) suddenly begin spouting lines from Richard III in a surreal sequence.
However, by overdoing his shtick, McKay constantly clips any sense of engagement in his characters by continually satirizing them. What is the point in making Bale go method and gain so much weight to authentically play Cheney, only to stymy his performance by filling every potentially engaging scene he has with a million cuts to everything from fish swimming to dices being thrown. It’s on a level with Peter Berg’s equally shoddily directed Mile 22.
One wonders whether McKay went so overboard because he realised his script – the first he wrote without a co-writer – is a mess. There’s the germ of a really interesting concept there – that Cheney replaced his vice for drinking with one for power, ignited by working for controversial former US Secretary of Defence and congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell, the only actor given a chance to sink his teeth into his slimy character) during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Cheney and Rumsfeld have no political belief, all they thirst after is power for the sake of power. This is what led Cheney to expand the powers of the Presidency so they could launch a war against Iraq to seize their oil without the US Congress’ consent. It’s his drive which has led to the countless deaths both of US troops and citizens of the countries they invaded.
However, someone like Aaron Sorkin or Mark Boal or even satirists like Armando Iannucci, Sam Bain or McKay’s collaborator on HBO series Succession, Jesse Armstrong, could perhaps trace that through line clearly. They could depict it in a way which emphasises the tragedy and makes Cheney interesting and fascinating if not empathetic, so that audiences are invested. The problem with Vice is that McKay clearly hates Cheney and all he stands for – implementing tax cuts for the rich, downplaying global warming, giving corporations the freedom to act as they please. Bale’s Cheney is not a character but a humourless, villainous caricature with McKay too busy pointing out all the questionable things he did in his political life to make him in anyway feel like an actual person. It doesn’t help that in Vice’s final stretch the writer-director practically lists off events like a Wikipedia entry with the Valerie Plame scandal and Cheney’s accidental shooting of a man while hunting being brought up and then tossed aside in just one line.
This reviewer has a feeling the film my have been tampered with by the studio, after realising McKay’s original take was not working. That is the only way to excuse Jesse Plemons’ narration that is so distracting for the entire film as one has no idea who he is or why he has all this information about Cheney’s life. The moment one realises his connection to the politician, takes the cake in ridiculousness, coming across as hilariously wrongheaded.
Still, McKay deserves credit for trying. Vice feels angry, flirting with timeliness. It shows that Trump is not the only thing wrong with US politics and that it has been populated with power hungry vipers since the beginning. That said, the comedy-drama is still proof that just because one feels passionately about a subject, does not automatically make it satisfying.