Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
|Featuring:||Christian Bale … Dick Cheney
Amy Adams … Lynne Cheney
Steve Carell … Donald Rumsfeld
Sam Rockwell … George W. Bush
Jesse Plemons …
Eddie Marsan … Paul Wolfowitz
Tyler Perry … Colin Powell
Alison Pill … Mary Cheney
Shea Whigham … Wayne Vincent
Lily Rabe … Liz Cheney
See all »
|Director:||Adam McKay—“The Big Short” (2015), “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004), “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2013), “The Other Guys” (2010), “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), “Step Brothers” (2008), “Get Hard” (2015—Writer/Producer)|
See all »
• “W.” (2008—Josh Brolin)
• “You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush” (2009—Will Ferrell)
• “Truth” (2015—Robert Redford)
In the run-up to the release of his new movie, writer-director Adam McKay touted “Vice” as the “untold true story” of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s life and career. When interviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal, McKay changed course and described his film as “first and foremost” a character study.
None of these tabloid pitches pan out. McKay does a lot of retelling, but none of this stuff is anything that hasn’t been told, and retold, again and again. Okay, there’s the one about Lynne Cheney’s father drowning her mother, but that is not so much a disclosure as it is a howler. What is the evidence, or the source, for that claim? The film offers neither.
As for this being a character study, it is clear from the start that McKay and company consider their subject to be a person devoid of character. So what exactly are they studying? Whether discussing Article 2 of the Constitution (an incredulous interchange with Antonin Scalia), enhanced interrogations or use of military force, this celluloid Cheney only has one goal in mind: self-advancement. The country’s good doesn’t even merit a close second. As for bombing other countries, such use of force is always debatable, but haven’t many presidents chosen that option? The movie implies that an air attack is a phenomenon peculiar to Dick Cheney and to his sinister motives. But such an attitude defies history, and logic. Was Cheney behind the raids on Bosnia and Syria, and the many fatal drone strikes that happened under his successor’s watch?
McKay believes that Cheney got as far as he did through deception, manipulation and relentless cunning. If Cheney was so good at pulling the wool over the public eye, one might think the filmmakers would look up to him, or at least learn something from him. After all, don’t movie people try to do the same thing? Suspend our belief and make us feel what they want us to feel? “Vice,” however, is too busy poking at scabs to critically examine the devilry, and the delight, that politics and entertainment, often share. McKay and his team miss the boat because they see themselves as above all that. They behave like courtiers in Herod’s palace, wagging fingers at the revelers in Tiberius’ villa.
“Vice” calls itself a comedy (it’s a contender in the Golden Globe “Best Comedy” category), but the writing is too preachy and too dense to work as comedy, especially black comedy. Some clever, well-timed or even playful acting might have saved the wooden script, but there is little of that. The actors submerge more than immerse themselves in their roles, and barely tread water. The story might have been funnier, and a lot more satisfying, had the performers dropped the kitsch and came up for air once in awhile.
Christian Bale tones down his usual acting style, one that encompasses either amphetamine driven chatter or withdrawn lassitude. In his portrayal of Dick Cheney, Bale makes a remarkable physical transformation, but that change is only skin deep, despite the extra adipose he packs on to his frame. I found Bale’s weight gain (was Cheney really that corpulent?) a distraction, one of many, that makes me question the movie’s objectives. Is fat shaming part of the overall joke?
The more McKay and Bale exaggerate, the more they distance themselves from their audience, and from the points they strain to make. You can go over the top in a comic sketch (McKay was formerly a writer for Saturday Night Live) that thrives on the hit and run joke, but laying it on this thick for more than two hours reveals a lack of finesse and taste.
Bale may look like Dick Cheney, even sound like him at times, but the actor does not become his character. Instead, he’s a costume party version of Cheney, an Elvis impersonator who might be good enough to wow ‘em at a high school reunion, but in the end is still a fake.
Amy Adams would seem a good choice to play Lynne Cheney. She is amiable and quirky, and can breathe fire when riled, but her lackluster Mrs. Cheney misses the mark. Channeling Lady Macbeth while donning a Sandra Dee hairdo, Adams burns out before she ever heats up. She could have rescued her performance had she winked at her audience, letting them in on McKay’s and her joke, something Sam Rockwell does do, and with a bit more panache, in his mock representation of President George W. Bush. Rockwell’s “W” is saved by a kind of good old boy lightheartedness that charms even when the mockery goes too far. He almost rescues the movie, but the rumpled and carelessly buttoned flannel shirts (wouldn’t those be hot and sticky in Texas?), the feet on top of the Oval Office desk, and the bovine eating habits (complete with slurps and grunts), smother any real humor that Rockwell tries to mine from the “Bush=stupid” zeitgeist.
“Vice” doesn’t so much touch on as bounce over the events of Cheney’s life. Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford, Secretary of Defense to President George H.W. Bush, Wyoming Congressman, Chairman of the Halliburton Company, and ultimately Vice President, there is a lot to ponder. Even to criticize. A politician’s life almost always follows an arc: one that rises and falls. What is it about a career in politics that makes it desirable to those who pursue it? Is it mere self-interest or is a willingness to change a world for the better? A seasoned politician knows all about backbiting and shady deals, and may not like those aspects of the profession, but, in the midst of the muck, there must be moments that make the career rewarding. Some movies (“The Great McGinty,” “All the King’s Men,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and even “The Candidate”) give us a glimpse of those highs and lows, those contradictions, and those tragic flaws that can produce tragic outcomes for the rest of us. This gloating, self-conscious movie does not.
The United States, and the world, has been blessed with great heads of state and burdened by others who were not. No leader, save one, is perfect.
“Vice” casts a scolding eye at political high priests while anointing itself. I could overlook that vanity if they gave us something to think about, to remember or even to laugh at. But McKay’s film is humorless, and Bale’s performance, despite the extra pounds, lacks weight.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.