Film Review – Vice
If all you want for Christmas this year is a little counter-programming, Adam McKay is here for you. A sort of spiritual successor to 2015’s The Big Short, McKay’s Vice narrows its focus in on one of the most brash, destructive politicians in U.S. history, Dick Cheney. (Why, who were you thinking?)
In another physical transformation as impressive as it is worrisome, Christian Bale embodies Cheney magnificently, down to the facial tics and barely contained contempt for those around him. Fueling his internal fire is wife Lynne (Amy Adams), a no-nonsense firecracker of a woman whose ultimatum after one too many trips to rescue him from the drunk tank in the 60’s sends Cheney lumbering down his fiery path.
Intercutting primarily between his initial rise to power in the White House and the direct aftermath (and dangerous decision making) of the 9/11 attacks, Vice is not what you’d call a traditional biopic. Borrowing from his Big Short bag of tricks, Adam McKay is again quick and loose with his structural choices here. An unnamed narrator (Jesse Plemons) breaks the fourth wall throughout, cutting through the humdrum jargon to move us from one era to the next. His connection to the larger story is eventually revealed and is, let’s say, divisive. Another example is an otherwise perfunctory scene of Lynne and Dick strategizing in bed that is jazzed up by abruptly shifting their parlance to that of a Shakespearean tragedy.
These are some undoubtedly big choices, and I won’t even reveal the biggest, occurring at the midway point, except to say I’ve rarely seen a crowd so split on their reaction to something. The question I keep coming back to is, do we really need all this? I understand the inclination to want to goose your audience into sitting up and paying attention, especially when the source material is so wordy and dry, but these are some big, big swings. I remember being similarly ruffled by the celebrity cameo interruptions in Big Short. I’m all for shaking up the narrative, but McKay’s track record for this sort of thing with me is spotty at best. If I wanted to be talked down to I’d have gone home for Christmas this year.
Rounding out the ensemble are Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as pushover president George W. Bush. Perry’s Powell is a non-starter and Carell’s Rumsfeld rides the line of out-and-out cartoon character. Rockwell fares best as Bush, really going for broke as the perceived good ol’ boy just trying to make his daddy proud. Cheney’s deft manipulation of Bush is frightening and well-developed. Sadly this dynamic is short shrifted. As I could confidently say about any movie ever, this one could have benefited greatly from more Rockwell.
Vice intends to make you angry with its depiction of greed and power, and often succeeds in doing so. Bale is a marvel, technically, but any insights into motivation are tossed aside to make way for that (admittedly funny) Alfred Molina cameo. The end result is frustrating. There’s a lot to admire here, you’ll just have to navigate your way through the gimmickry in order to find it.