When a mysterious voice over enters the fray—refusing to divulge his identity—we know director Adam McKay’s Vice will try very hard not to say anything very well. Here, McKay continues his foray into biting political commentary. His newest film matches The Big Short in style, but doesn’t have the regard to fully sketch out characters past caricatures, while featuring a mind numbingly didactic script.
Vice—a biopic of Vice President Dick Cheney—picks low-hanging fruit. It’s pretty easy to lampoon the, more machine than human, Darth Vader of bureaucrats. It’s simple to portray Cheney’s maniacal lust for power. However, what should be said past that? McKay never bothers to find out. Instead, the film opens with a young Cheney. The future Vice President is described as a neerdowell, a bum. He’s an alcoholic, a bar brawler, a dropout from Yale University, and at the cross-roads of life.
McKay is myopically interested in cross roads, fascinated that our futures can depend on decisions made in a split second. Christian Bale plays the budding politician, who’s cajoled by his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) to get his life in order.
Cheney soon begins a meteoric rise from Congressional intern, to Chief of Staff, to Congressman, Secretary of Defense, and finally, Vice President (with a few heart attacks along the way).
Bale plays the humanoid in pure Bale fashion, disappearing into the characters’ physical manifestations for a performance that finds more texture and nuance than what’s in the script. He’s joined by Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Carell and the script never build Rumsfeld past a laughing potty mouth baboon. And while McKay’s intent is to demonstrate that in the halls of power, idiots are still idiots, it’s a simple and obvious play. Conversely, Rockwell (coming off his Oscar win for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is wretchedly miscast. Not because Rockwell looks nothing like Bush, a trait that McKay may have found more entertaining, but because his impression is so hammy. Both Carell and Rockwell come off as SNL reject cast members.
Lynne is the most compelling character in Vice. The stay-at-home mom. The determined spouse of a power couple. The highly intelligent and persuasive, yet glib campaigner. Offering the best line of the film, “We keep our bras on,” Amy Adams is never given the screen time her character deserves. The dynamic between Dick Cheney and his daughter Mary (Alison Pill)—a lesbian whose sexual orientation most Republicans found to be repugnant—could also have been wonderfully wrought. However, like with Adams, McKay doesn’t know what he has. Instead, he uses Cheney’s daughter as a sharp tool to chisel the Vice President’s spiral to heartless family despot.
When Cheney is asked to be Vice President, he must choose between his thirst for power and protecting his daughter from the Republican political base. Cheney “chooses” his daughter and fake credits begin to roll. The best gag in the film, it may have made Vice a revolutionary biopic had it actually ended there. Unfortunately, McKay is pretty much left with nothing. He plays the second half of the film as your standard biopic, dutifully and dullfully bouncing from 9-11 to the Iraq War, to yes, the shooting incident (the film feels like its 132 minute runtime). We’re inundated with step-by-step instructions of how Cheney accrued enough power to send us into war, adorned with a screenplay that wants so badly to be The West Wing. However, the writing doesn’t fit McKay, as it comes off as more wooden and liberally didactic here. We don’t receive inner details of the Bush administration as context, they’re shoved down our throats like a Wikipedia breathing tube. The only reason to stick around is to see Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, who actually matches up well with who he’s playing.
McKay and co. undermine themselves by believing they’re more subversive than they actually are. While McKay is aware he’s making a red-meat Liberal biopic, he borders on sanctimonious in Vice. Nowhere is that sentiment more evident than through Jesse Plemons’ narration. Playing a mystery man, his role soon shrinks from intriguing, to inchoate, to a hindrance. The entirety of the film is played around his character, for a “payoff” that comes off as a beware of smoking advertisement. The resulting scene—made to be both a death knell and climax—turns the audience into dupes. McKay doesn’t need Plemon’s ever-present narration for the climactic scene to work. Instead, The voice over’s conceit is both time consuming and useless—two adjectives that might define Vice—only acting as another invitation for the director to force feed information.
Frustratingly, McKay squanders rich material. We don’t come to understand the Bush administration better, or even Cheney. When McKay remembers that a film (at some point) should be an expression of its audience, he bakes focus group scenes into the film. These moments of people discussing whether they find either the term, “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” more intimidating are intriguing. However, like most good things in Vice, they’re few and far between. McKay ends his satirical political biopic with a tonally deaf breaking of the fourth wall and a metaphor as excessive as America’s defense budget. One of the most terrifying public figures in American history is reduced to a punchline. That might be comforting to some. But for those wanting to understand how it all went wrong, ala The Big Short, Vice is as aggressively dangerous as a heart attack. And just as painful.