Adam McKay should have stuck to comedy.
The man who brought the world the sheer joy of Anchorman and Step Brothers had found his niche in Hollywood – directing Will Ferrell, and doing it brilliantly. Then, he caught everyone by surprise with The Big Short – a zippy and energetic attempt to tell the story of the slimy Wall Street ne’er-do-wells who profited from the 2008 financial crisis. That film, despite being a noisy pile of nothing, won critical acclaim and Oscar nominations – the same fate seemingly awaiting his newest film.
Vice adds the McKay energy, and its associated frenetic filmmaking, to the story of Dick Cheney – played as a kind of Fat-rick Bateman figure by Christian Bale. A veteran White House power player, Cheney rose to the role of George W. Bush’s vice president and redefined that job in order to satisfy his own desire for control. When his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) calls him a “big, fat piss-soaked zero” in an early scene set in 1963, it lights a fire under Cheney’s ample rear end, sending him on a collision course that, according to the movie, basically makes Cheney the Patient Zero of every evil currently ravaging modern America. The film makes no bones about the fact that Cheney is a villain in a tailored suit and McKay is so keen to make that point that he repeatedly bludgeons the viewer with it. It’s the ideological equivalent of the fire extinguisher scene in Irreversible.
As he did in The Big Short, McKay shows a startling lack of faith in his audience and their ability to grasp the gravity of his storytelling. An initially unseen narrator, played by Jesse Plemons, holds the viewer’s hand as they navigate the corridors of the White House, leading to the third act revelation of his significance that is a groan-worthy detour into Nicolas Sparks territory. Alfred Molina, too, pops up as a waiter in a scene that feels like a direct sequel to the “Margot Robbie in a bathtub” detours of The Big Short. McKay also chucks in a stylistic trick to literalise every character motivation or subtle piece of acting. Crucial speeches are intercut with images of teetering china cups or a lioness taking down her prey. It’s a film that has decided not to ‘show, don’t tell’ but to do both as noisily as possible. Either the movie is stupid, or it believes the audience is stupid. Neither is a good look.
In the context of all of this bluster and obviousness, Bale’s performance is a legitimate triumph. His weight gain and physical transformation is initially distracting, but Bale finds subtleties in his well-observed turn that are far beyond the confines of the film in which he’s appearing. Vice draws a clear contrast between Cheney’s lack of charisma as an electoral force – a campaign speech is an awkward disaster akin to The Thick of It – and his ability to manipulate his way into power. Bale’s Cheney speaks with a measured cadence, as if choosing every word carefully, and frequently exhales deeply before opening his mouth, as if buying himself a few extra seconds to think.
Bale stands out in the ensemble, surrounded by people who are largely doing broad SNL-style caricatures. Sam Rockwell’s Bush, in particular, is a figure of ridicule introduced in a booze-fuelled fugue as “the black sheep of the family” and subsequently framed as a simple patsy for Cheney’s scheming. Amy Adams is spared that fate as Lynne Cheney, especially shining without saying a word in a hospital bedside scene that involves a shocking revelation about her daughter, but she completely disappears from the story during the VP years, as if deemed surplus to requirements.
Vice is frequently guilty of becoming bogged down in its own trickery. A mid-movie twist on the traditional ‘what happened next?’ biopic end cards, lands without a proper punchline and a heavily signposted dive into Shakespearean territory was probably funnier on paper than it is in the finished movie. Even from the earliest moments, there’s an overload of style. The film starts with a cheeky, sweary spin on a ‘based on a true story’ message before rapidly intercutting between 1963 and the White House in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, then delivering a montage with a voiceover akin to a BBC documentary, before moving to an on-screen quote about power and a Western-homaging credits sequence. Often movies are criticised for having too many endings; this one has about half a dozen beginnings.
There’s no doubting McKay’s passion in delivering his message. He firmly believes that Cheney’s actions were reprehensible and had a huge impact all over the world – a direct comparison between George W. Bush’s foot nervously tapping in tandem with that of an Iraqi family cowering under a table would have hit hard in a better movie. However, McKay’s desire to empty his cinematic magician’s sleeve as quickly and loudly as possible has the unfortunate effect of obfuscating his message with movie madness. His lecturing, smug tone doesn’t help – not least with an ill-judged post-credits scene that essentially talks down to anyone who has ever gone to see a film that isn’t of huge political significance.
Prior to that end tag, the movie concludes with Bale delivering a chilling address as Cheney, direct to camera, putting a rather neat bow on a film that is anything but tidy. He might look like Chevy Chase and sound like he’s heavy breathing his way through a phone sex line chat, but Bale’s performance is mighty, with a performance that is measured, Machiavellian and always three steps ahead of just about everyone else. It’s just a shame the film is too in love with itself to make the most of that.
Dir: Adam McKay
Scr: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry
Prd: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
DOP: Greig Fraser
Music: Nicholas Britell
Run time: 132 mins
Vice is out in UK cinemas from 25th January.