Adam McKay’s makeup and costume dramedy “Vice” is quite the movie to unpack. With its double-edged title and full lather of political messaging, “Vice” resembles a progressive manifesto more than a stinging satire or credible biographical sketch. And McKay comes across as the political left’s version of Dinesh D’Souza but with a bigger budget and an attention-grabbing cast.
Now I am all for filmmakers having their own voices and relaying their own messages. It’s one of the things that makes cinema great. But when that message is used like a blunt weapon you can end up with the exhausting mess that is “Vice”. It is a frustratingly schizophrenic movie, bouncing around from scene to scene with no sense of focus. Good luck figuring out what McKay wants his film to be.
The game plan for the story was pretty simple – portray Dick Cheney to be the devil incarnate and use every single frame and every line of dialogue to do so. But in doing so, McKay ends up giving us someone who more closely resembles an 80’s Saturday morning cartoon villain than a character with any real human qualities. It’s a shame because Christian Bale’s stunning transformative performance deserves the critical acclaim it has received.
Storywise “Vice” makes the same mistake you often see in these types of movies – it tries to cover way too much ground. It starts with Cheney’s early days as a drunken “dirtbag” and then moves to his marriage to Lynne (a very good Amy Adams). It then meanders through six different presidencies showing Cheney’s various political roles in his (as McKay presents it) quest for power. Of course then there are the Bush years and Cheney’s time as VP and alleged puppet master.
And to bog things down even more why not wedge in as many conservative stalwarts as you can – Roger Ailes, Antonin Scalia, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, and that just scratches the surface. There is plenty you could say about some of these people, but they aren’t here to enrich the story. They are simply targets of McKay’s detestation both for them and Dick Cheney.
Oh, and after all of that, if somehow you didn’t get McKay’s blaring point that Chaney is pure evil in human form, you get a final 20 minutes where the director starts throwing as much as he can at the screen – Valerie Plame, the infamous hunting incident, and more. It all feels tacked on, as if he ran out of time but still didn’t know when to quit jabbing.
McKay’s structural choices aren’t much better. The story is jolted by several weird time jumps as well as out-of-the-blue attempts at humor that mostly land with a thud (apparently Cheney’s heart attacks are quite a gas). There is also an assortment of ham-fisted, on-the-nose imagery much of which probably looked better on paper than it does on the screen. But worst of all is this bizarre Jesse Plemons narration that plays out in the dopiest way imaginable.
Sam Rockwell is fun as George W. Bush but he’s not much help. His scenes are more like sketch-comedy bits than a meaningful movie role. Steve Carell comes off even worse. He plays Donald Rumsfeld as if he was doing an episode of “The Office” or another “Anchorman” sequel. Ultimately you end up clinging to Bale and Adams who give standout performances but can’t save the film from its plethora of flaws and miscalculations.
“Vice” is one big frustration especially considering the tons of potential it wastes. It’s a textbook example of how bad things can go when you have such rotten tone management and a dogged fixation on your message that smothers your storytelling and character building. To no surprise there has proven to be an audience for this slog. I can confidently say I’m not a part of it.
VERDICT 1.5 STARS