Adam McKay Leaves Comedy Behind In Ill-Fated Cheney Picture "Vice"

It’s unclear exactly why Adam McKay’s “Vice” begins with a young Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) driving drunk. Considering the former Vice President’s legacy, a DUI registers as a venial sin, one shared by countless American political figures. It also has little bearing on anything that follows, the first hint that we’re watching a film that might as well have been assembled with the help of a Magic 8-Ball. But lo, a stroke of serendipity: the scene ends up a fitting symbol of a piece that swerves indeterminately between the white lines, swaying like the bar know-it-all after a particularly lusty night of talking down to everyone in earshot.

Christian Bale, a very good actor and sometimes a great one, pins his turn as Cheney on another dramatic weight swing. The Oscar-winner has made a career of physical transformations, and his bulkiness here counts as his most dramatic change since at least “The Fighter” – maybe since his dangerous 60-pound weight loss for “The Machinist.” Uncharacteristically though, it nearly defines Bale’s performance. Saddled with an almost defiantly thin script from McKay (one garnished with on-the-nose metaphors and labored asides) the former Dark Knight can only grimace his way from open to close, utterly unsure of what kind of movie he’s in.

The cracks in McKay’s first venture into dramatic storytelling, 2015’s “The Big Short,” are where “Vice” shatters. Here McKay ventures so far from his “Anchorman” salad days that his herky-jerky documentation of the power-hungry title character’s rise from Yale dropout to White House intern to congressman to George W. Bush’s puppetmaster comes off not like like political satire but a self-satisfied sermon. The aforementioned asides, like Vice President Cheney and his minions ordering justifications for torture off a restaurant menu, are smarmy and unfunny, the kind of broad gag that might have played as a throwaway sketch during the filmmaker’s time as head writer at “Saturday Night Live.”

In a feature film, it’s nothing short of cringe-worthy.

Then there’s McKay’s grand framing device, the movie’s original sin. He invents a fictitious military veteran (Jesse Plemons) to narrate, a character whose ultimate entanglement with Cheney is at once expected and gauche. In a movie packed with clumsy metaphors, it is the clumsiest, leading to a shot of one of Cheney’s vital organs that feels like being beaten over the head with a hardcover copy of the Constitution.

Speaking of the Constitution, Cheney’s obvious misdeeds in the White House are well represented here, tidily presented as stemming from a particularly monstrous interpretation of our founding documents. And yet in the context of a would-be satire, Cheney’s transgressions scan like hijinks; cartoonish acts that vaporize like bad comedy routines. In a movie whose only aim is to relay how the American vice presidency was remade in a dastardly Wyomingite’s image, there can be no mistaking fact and fiction. McKay muddies those waters at every turn.

The expansive supporting cast seems as perplexed as Bale about the movie they’re in. As Cheney’s wife Lynne, Amy Adams splits the difference between docudrama and broad comedy – an unremarkable performance, which for Adams is in itself remarkable. Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush sidles up to full-on caricature, falling well short of Josh Brolin’s humanizing performance in Oliver Stone’s middling “W.” McKay veteran Steve Carell phones in Cheney colleague-turned-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, while Tyler Perry (Colin Powell), Alison Pill (Mary Cheney), and others don’t accrue enough screen time to register.

When McKay zigzags to the end of Cheney’s congressional career – the years of retirement before he became an unlikely pick for Vice President – and does an end credits fake-out worth a million eye-rolls, “Vice” has only begun to wilt. It picks up steam on its track toward ignominy all the way through its real end credits, where it callously shifts the blame for Cheney’s deeds (and other current events) onto moviegoers.

For a fatally unfunny satire that unspools like a jumbled encyclopedia entry, this is quite the cherry on top. The closing scene and a mid-credits stinger are one bird-flip at audiences who trusted the director of a few comedy classics to bring the story of Dick Cheney to the big screen in an entertaining, meaningful way. Instead they get a film that doesn’t respect them enough to know what a metaphor is – or know literally anything about the subject matter.

You just might come out feeling like you know less about Cheney than you did going in. It’s the only element of “Vice” that feels like any kind of achievement.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: December 25, 2018
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriter: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Tyler Perry, Jesse Plemons
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violent images)