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Vice (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 4, 2020


VICE (2018)

Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Eddie Marsan, Shea Whigham, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Bill Camp, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Adam Bartley, Justin Kirk, Joseph Beck, Aidan Gail, Don McManus, Andrea Wright, Bob Stephenson, Jillian Armenante, Violet Hicks, Kirk Bovill, Kyle S. More, Matthew Jacobs, Angela Leib, Alfred Molina and Naomi Watts.

Screenplay by Adam McKay.

Directed by Adam McKay.

Distributed by Annapurna Pictures. 132 minutes. Rated R.

It’s hard to believe how two years of Trump has led us to almost forget – or at least minimize – the crimes and misdemeanors of Dick Cheney.

Therefore, it seemed intriguing that Adam McKay – the comic director who showed a wonderfully subversive political eye with The Big Short, the surprisingly effective and funny film about how sub-prime mortgages helped to lead to the financial downfall of 2008 – would turn his jaded gaze on undoubtedly the most powerful (and arguably one of the most corrupt) Vice President in US history.

After all, this story covers much of the same era as The Big Short, though it also goes further back in Cheney’s history to give a more nuanced look at the character. Also, the Bush administration was known for its ineptitude, so it might seem that those years might be prime for the McKay touch, a free-wheeling and comically-based look at some deadly serious history.

McKay’s film starts with a real ace in the hole – actor Christian Bale’s extraordinary commitment to the role. Bale put on over 40 pounds and went through extensive makeup to play the former Vice President. But, more than this, he studied the man, learning his guarded gestures, his soft-spoken hostility, his ability to take control when mayhem happened. It’s a stunning performance, and worthy of Oscar consideration.

Too bad the film isn’t quite worthy of Bale’s – and most of the rest of the cast’s – terrific work.

Don’t get me wrong, in many ways it is a very good film. However, the tone is all over the place. Unlike McKay’s previous film this is not necessarily a good thing. Those little comic breakaways worked so well in The Big Short because the subject matter was so arcane and confusing. Therefore, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime loans or Selena Gomez in a casino giving a crash course in synthetic CDO was both funny and necessary to move the story forward.

That kind of tonally adventurous stuff does not quite work as well in Vice. Most of us know and understand about the Bush/Cheney regime, so we don’t need to have it winkingly explained to us. And, honestly, it is hard to be funny when talking about such horrific events as the World Trade Center attack or torturing prisoners.

Therefore, the tonal shift – playing stuff that is serious as a heart attack in a comic mode – comes off more awkwardly here. Lots of scenes that are supposed to add a playful element to a grave story come off a little flat here, where they soared in The Big Short. Little vignettes – like the Cheneys in bed speaking in Shakespearian soliloquies, a preemptive end-credits strike and the closest cousin of the Robbie and Gomez “explanation” scenes with Alfred Molina as a waiter offering abuses of power on the menu – don’t work in context to the story like they had in the previous film.

Which is kind of a shame, because when Vice takes itself a little more seriously and tells its story relatively straightly, it’s pretty damned good.

McKay obviously understands the things that happened during the Bush administration, but sometimes Vice feels more like a “greatest hits” reenactment of the era than a cohesive political argument. He does rediscover some very important points which have become hazy over the years – for example when he shows how Bush and Cheney were directly responsible for the creation of ISIS, despite the fact that the current man in office loves to blame it on Obama.

In fact, honestly, George W. Bush gets a bit of a free pass in Vice. Sam Rockwell (and the movie) play him off as an incompetent boob with daddy issues, but most people – the former President included – feel that Bush had much more of a hand in how things shook out.

The film also sometimes seems to have a bit of trouble deciding whether Cheney is the hero or villain of the story, though this ambiguity actually sometimes works in the film’s favor. No one, not even his closest friends, could call Dick Cheney a warm or likable person, and honestly the film of his life shares that chilly distance.

McKay should be commended for taking on a huge subject when making Vice. The film is far from a complete success, but it is a smart (and occasionally funny) warning about the abuse of power, a lesson we need now more than ever.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: December 24, 2018.

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