In an age of political tomfoolery that reaches cartoonish heights on a regular basis, political satire has become an antiquated conceit. Few punchlines about American governance resonate as much as the real-life incidents that inspire it. In light of that shift, Adam McKay’s “Vice,” which reaches into the recent past to exhume a satiric portrait of Dick Cheney, has a peculiar kind of innocence: Buoyed by a brilliant transformation by Christian Bale, it offers a smart and detailed overview of Cheney’s elaborate ruse to exploit the country’s highest authority, but undercuts its authority with crass and often clunky humor that overstates the nature of Cheney’s villainy. Lame jokes just get in the way when the bad guys are hiding in plain sight.
Nevertheless, McKay’s rebooted career of more serious-minded and timely works follows his housing crisis breakdown “The Big Short” with a fascinating consolidation of two modes. On the one hand, it’s a shrewd and pointed overview of Cheney’s rise, from GOP errand boy to backroom influencer to shadow president; the plot unfolds with the density of a muckraking journalistic expose, arbitrarily interrupted by pages from MAD Magazine. Stepping into solo territory with his own screenplay after “The Big Short,” which also benefited from Michael Lewis’ non-fiction source material, McKay has assembled an ambitious mixed bag.
There’s much to admire about “Vice,” from performances to its sprawling timeline, and yet it often seems trapped between the intentions of a broad liberal parody and more sincere attempts to understand Cheney’s essence, frequently indulging in kooky extremes before backing away with apologetic gravitas. Memo to McKay: Either make the “Dr. Strangelove” of the Bush II years, or don’t.
McKay fires off a lot of ideas that probably sounded better on paper. Consider, for instance, a late scene in “Vice” that finds the newly elected vice president sitting down for dinner with his lawyer and other close peers of the newly minted Bush administration. First, there’s the all-too-persistent voiceover narrator (Jesse Plemons, whose connection to these proceedings arrives as a third-act twist), who explains that Cheney was quick to uncover as many loopholes as possible to engage the Bush Administration in legally questionable activities and get away with it. More specifically, he had a “full menu of laws” to manipulate. Having explained as much, McKay takes things to the next level: Cue the arrival of a mannered waiter (Alfred Molina) explaining the dishes of the day, which range from Guantanamo Bay to “a fresh war powers interpretation.” Cheney concludes, “We’ll have all of it.”
This metaphorical gag is almost zany enough to work, but drags on so long it’s almost as though McKay were elbowing his viewers to make sure they got the bit. It’s also one of many occasions when he doesn’t trust the sturdiness of the material at hand — namely, the more focused biopic at the heart of the story.
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It begins in the ’60s, as a hard-drinking young Dick (Bale ages remarkably throughout the story) gets locked up after a barroom brawl. His stern wife Lynn (Amy Adams, embodying an underwritten Lady Macbeth with ferocious energy) gives her messy husband an ultimatum: Get your act together or she’ll find someone who can. Cut to black, and Cheney’s vow never to let her down again. Despite the Lifetime-ready sappiness of the setup, it’s still a credible window into the personal drive of this notoriously private schemer, and well matched later as McKay tracks Cheney’s ability to climb his way up the political ladder with Lynne playing the adoring cheerleader.
As a family man, he strikes a powerful note, protecting Lynne and their children from her abusive father; later, as an advisor to Nixon and later Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, Lynne continues to provide unwavering support. After Ford’s loss to Carter, the uncharismatic Cheney makes a feeble bid for Congress, only winning once Lynne takes charge. It’s here that the recurring jokes about Cheney’s health enter into the picture — heart attacks arrive at the most inopportune moments — but these episodes are among the milder bits the movie offers up, at least until a climactic hospital scene that overstates the allegorical significance of Cheney’s heartlessness many times over.
Even as “Vice” undercuts the intelligent portrait at hand with rampant mockery, McKay’s script excels at making the case for Cheney’s gradual abandonment of any discernible moral code. As a young intern for Donald Rumsfeld in a pre-Watergate Nixon Administration, Cheney’s baffled at the ease with which the president’s cabinet rains down more hellfire on Vietnam. “What do we believe?” he asks, with a kind of docile curiosity, and faces abject laughter as a response.
Despite these shrewder moments, McKay’s jittery script tosses every possible stylistic digression possible into the pot and lets it stew. Here’s a dollhouse breakdown of the W. cabinet and Cheney’s many offices across town; there’s Naomi Watts as a Fox News caricature announcing the decay of American discourse. There’s a cheap thrill to some of the more exaggerated tangents, and a few genuinely click — none more than McKay’s decision to roll the damn credits for the movie an hour in, when Cheney initially believes he’s retired from public life. Then George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, whose false nose and ears make him look like an Elvish spin on the real deal) comes calling about the 2000 campaign. It’s a Godardian narrative twist that few serious-minded American dramedies would dare to try, and McKay deserves credit for the gamble.
But there’s too much more where that came from. As Cheney ponders his options, he engages in pillow talk with a reluctant Lynne about the Shakespearean possibilities of manipulating W. into letting Cheney manage virtually every aspect of the U.S. government. With a little context from that unseen narrator, the couple actually speak in made-up Shakespearean sonnets so accurate in their cadences most viewers won’t realize McKay wrote the lines himself. No matter the entertainment value of such outrageous stunts, McKay often trips on the bluntness of his approach — frequent cutaways to fly-fishing as Cheney ensnares the naive would-be president in his scheme; elsewhere, just to shake up the non-diegetic inserts, Cheney’s machinations are complimented by shots of a lion catching its prey. McKay falls back on humor with a schematic approach that denigrates the capacity for viewers to follow along.
In between all that, it’s business as usual: Cheney taking charge in the aftermath of the election recount, assembling the Bush cabinet even before the results are finalized; Cheney running the shop on 9/11, exploiting the oil prospects of the Middle East, and charging ahead even as the administration’s credibility falls apart. Eager impersonations of well-known sycophants fill the frame, from an overeager Carell (likable but hardly convincing; see Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known” for context) to a straight-faced Tyler Perry as Colin Powell (fleeting and random). But Bale towers above them all, physically inhabiting a shrewd capitalist monstrosity all too eager to make the world bend to his will even as he maintains a few soft spots (Alison Pill, who plays Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary, provides the glimmers of an intriguing crisis of confidence for the vice — her own challenging story could fill another feature altogether).
Bale has a tendency to showboat, but the specifics of the Cheney role require such a dramatic transformation that he can’t miss a beat; he’s so believable that many scenes inhabit an eerie, documentary-like authenticity, at least until the next joke.
Of course, the very conceit of a movie about this cataclysmic moment in American politics being eager to please deserves some measure of appreciation. Unlike Oliver Stone’s bland biopic “W.”, McKay recognizes the challenge of engaging anyone about the inner workings of the American government in the context of mainstream entertainment. In the opening moments of the movie, the narrator explains exactly that. And then “Vice” proceeds to give it a shot.
It’s not his greatest movie, but the movie does seem like the apotheosis of McKay’s output to date: His “Anchorman” movies are savvy media critiques in lowbrow clothing, “Step Brothers” opens with an ironic George W. Bush quote about family life, and McKay’s behind-the-scenes work on Will Ferrell’s Broadway show “Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush” says much about his recurring interests in injecting the more frustrating aspects of the political moment into popular culture. “Vice,” in its rambunctious and unfocused manner, takes some ludicrous risks to make cogent points about Cheney’s malicious intent — and how he put his plans into action. The movie doesn’t touch the Trump era, nor does it need to bother. If nothing else, McKay delivers a reasonable argument for how much worse Cheney was for America, particularly because most of the country didn’t notice.
But it’s often hard to tell if “Vice” hits its target or simply admires it with simplistic zeal. In another of the movie’s silly asides, Plemons explains how Cheney could make even the most ridiculous ideas sound plausible. And so we’re treated to the rising star of Ford’s cabinet telling the president that they should put tiny wigs on their penises and dangle them around. The bit doesn’t quite land, but the point does, and it leaves you wondering if calling Cheney on his bullshit inadvertently celebrates how well he got away with it.
Annapurna Pictures releases “Vice” on December 25, 2018.