Film Review: Vice

Vice is an Entertaining Misfire

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Too cute by half and too glib in full, Vice is a condescending, albeit entertaining, oversimplification of one of the most controversial figures in American history. Director and writer Adam McKay is too preoccupied with sanctimonious gimmickry to craft a well-rounded narrative of a complex man. Christian Bale is excellent as Dick Cheney, acting through one of the most stunning physical transformations ever undertaken for a role, but the film comes off as a smug lecture just shy of propaganda rather than a proper biopic. Mild spoilers ahead…

Vice begins with an opening crawl, explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story. It then corrects itself by stating that it is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history. But we did our fucking best.” This smug attitude seeps into the entire rest of the film - Vice is angry without insight, slick without restraint, and its over-reliance on whimsy comes off as patronizing rather than enlightening. The film isn’t particularly revelatory, either, coasting through broad caricatured strokes that are unlikely to impart any new knowledge of Cheney’s life or of the second Bush administration. Adam McKay’s latest, however, is not without its merits, as the cast is uniformly excellent with some of the most impressive biopic makeup and costuming in recent memory: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell all but disappear into the roles of the Cheneys, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush, respectively. I just wish the phenomenal cast could have served a more well-rounded story rather than cheap tricks and a cursory demonization of conservatives.

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“Vice is angry without insight, slick without restraint, and its over-reliance on whimsy comes off as patronizing rather than entertaining.”

Writer and director Adam McKay, who cut his teeth on comedies such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, is a filmmaker that excels at farcical boys’ club narratives - his Will Ferrell vehicles are some of the most uproarious and quotable comedies of the mid-aughts, comedies that were a rite of passage for my generation. Interestingly enough, in 2015, McKay extrapolated his “men behaving badly” theme and took a shot at a more serious subject matter with a more serious tone in The Big Short, which follows key operators of the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short and Vice can be seen as companion pieces, both tackling particularly dark times in modern American history with the director’s signature meta-humor and beyond-the-fourth-wall antics. This, however, is where the similarities end, because one is quite successful at accomplishing its storytelling goals, and the other is not. While The Big Short is a measured and incisive takedown of the greedy and corrupt practices that led to the financial meltdown of 2008, Vice is a condescending lecture that muddles its own message with a gross oversimplification of events that may or may not have happened. Sure, The Big Short is glib and superficial as well, but that may have been out of necessity because of its bone-dry source material - Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez explaining mortgage-backed securities is endearing and fun, but the gimmicks of Vice border on grating screed. Too cute for its own good, Vice is a film that has annoying Shakespearean soliloquies, a fakeout ending (with credits et al), fourth-wall breaking tirades, and extended fantasy sequences. In one scene, actor Alfred Molina supplies the meta-cameo as a waiter serving a metaphorical menu of “enemy combatant, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay,” to which Cheney replies, “We’ll have them all,” as his cronies cackle beside him. Vice is almost impossible to take seriously with its over-produced dialogue and undercooked message, with McKay force-feeding us his ham-fisted agenda instead of allowing us to come to our own conclusions about Dick Cheney.

I may dislike the way Vice tells its story, but I can’t deny that the film is entertaining and moving at times. Christian Bale, who gained over 40 pounds for the role, is note perfect as the taciturn Cheney. Much of the film’s able cast also follows suit, even if they are oversimplified caricatures of their real-life counterparts, with Amy Adams especially standing out as the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth to Bale’s power-hungry veep. If nothing else, Vice is a master class in how to have actors effectively portray real-life individuals, with mannerisms and dialogue carrying the verisimilitude, not clunky prosthetics or CGI. The few human moments the film does afford Cheney also rank among the best that Vice has to offer, as his relationship with his youngest daughter Mary (Alison Pill) carries surprising emotional weight. Her sexual orientation and coming out is handled with aplomb, and a later development, that would have been devastating if McKay hadn’t already painted the elder Cheneys as cartoon villains, is quite heartbreaking. But in the end, these human moments are way too few and far between to flesh out a complicated individual.

Mean-spirited and empty, Vice lacks the depth and maturity of a quality biopic, instead focusing on fist-waving and condescension. This review is in no way a defense of Dick Cheney, who really was one of the primary architects of a particularly dark period in American politics, but Adam McKay makes the lessons we need to take away from the film incredibly hard to swallow. And just because the film hangs a lampshade on its liberal bias with a cute mid-credits scene doesn’t suddenly make the film better or more palatable. Vice is not the Dick Cheney biopic we deserve, but hey, Adam McKay tried his fucking best.

GRADE: C