Soft touch, that’s all. One Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is a directionless young man in the early 1960’s. He’s squandering any potential he may have by being unruly and wasting his days getting drunk, leading to an expulsion from Yale University. This is the bottom for him, and the only reason it’s not rock is because his rock in longtime girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams), refuses to let him sink into the abyss, telling him plainly to make something of himself or never see her again.
Using this as the impetus for change, Dick lands a prestigious internship tied to the Nixon administration. His meek facade conceals a dogged determination that reveals itself when under the supervision of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Make no mistake, Dick wants to ascend to the presidential throne, but roadblocks always prevent him from doing so. Opportunity knocks in a surprising fashion when the son of old friend George Herbert Walker Bush needs a running mate for the 2000 presidential election. W. (Sam Rockwell) tags Dick for the job. Initially reluctant, Dick starts to imagine—and eventually execute—a scenario that isn’t so far-fetched; a scenario in which he as Vice President is the Commander-in-Chief, only without everyone knowing.
In Vice, director Adam McKay solidifies his career turn. The man is seemingly hell-bent on using his directorial lens to re-examine some of the events of the past that ultimately led to prolonged challenging and/or dark periods. In The Big Short, the kill shots were taken at those individuals and their behaviors that led to the 2008 economic crisis—with a heavy dash of cynicism, dark humor, and fourth-wall smashing. In Vice, the target mostly under the scope is the Republican party; specifically, the Bush Administration. Vice is a lot of things: Hilarious, satirical, haphazard, preachy, well-produced, and somewhat unsure of itself.
A word of caution: For those who found the mashing of humor and drama to never coalesce in The Big Short, it’s unlikely that Vice will be that Eureka! moment. In totality, McKay’s follow up feels slightly more disjointed. At times, it’s expertly paced, aesthetically on-point in recreating monologues/televised addresses, and delivered with sharp, if awkward, parallels to the Cheneys and MacBeth.
Audience addressing arrives again via narration courtesy this time of Jesse Plemons, with nary a bathtub around (thankfully) for explaining concepts. The fourth-wall break is substantially smoother this time around. But, there’s a convincing argument to be made that however weird it was seeing Selena Gomez explain Synthetic CDO with casino side bets, it was needed. The presidential material on hand here is less dense than the housing market textbook-like jargon found in McKay’s previous effort. As such, the breaking can come off as self-indulgent in areas, and not a necessity.
Many works of art have biases and leans to them; that’s not surprising. Vice doesn’t hide from this fact, with one of the end lines of dialogue being another fourth wall dissolution highlighting why many people will hate this movie because of its (paraphrasing) liberal agenda. McKay and his production team certainly lean into and harness the comedic element of this Cheney story. Morally questionable events and behavior can make for the funniest humor. It’s fair to wonder, though, whether Vice would have more to chew on and ponder with a bit straighter and nuanced take. The Big Short was certainly embellished and sometimes played for laughs, yet still by many accounts got most of the events right, which translated into depth and weight culminating in a brilliant final 10-15 minutes. Vice features people who did actually exist doing things that actually did happen, but to call it a biography and to a lesser extent a drama suggests a deeper and accurate examination of its subject that doesn’t exist here.
Its desire to be a lot of things yet only excelling in one (comedy) means Vice only skims the surface of its story. With that said, the surface of this is extremely entertaining thanks to the cast put together. Bale has always had a penchant for physical transformation. It’s the little things he commits to method that will see him score another Academy nomination and potential win, such as the crooked mouth, cocked head lean, and the docile-yet-dangerous gaze that his eyes harbor. He’s reunited with two-time co-star Adams, herself undergoing a mini-transformation as the steely First Lady Cheney. Carell’s portrayal of Rumsfeld is his strongest work of 2018, the oddball 43rd President of the United States is a great vessel for the eccentric Rockwell to channel his energy into, and the oft-ridiculed Tyler Perry proves again that he’s adept at handling challenging roles amid a heralded cast playing Colin Powell.
Equally fascinating and frustrating, it isn’t easy to boil down Vice. Main takeaway? Vice doesn’t possess the 4D chess power it claims its subject had, but its ambition is admirable, and cast work flawless. At the very least, it is rarely boring. Who knows what McKay will tackle in 2021?
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