Vice - Review

Vice can’t decide whether to be a biting critique or a dramatic examination, and stumbles in both.

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Adam McKay’s Vice struggles with two of its most fundamental aspects: writing and storytelling. It’s similar to McKay’s last film, The Big Short, a hyper-stylized examination of the 2008 housing crisis, but it is also very different. Vice is emotional, and depressing; rare moments of levity come only from manipulation of the truth, the rest of the film resting somewhere between critical analysis and drama. Dick Cheney is humanized, even moralized, and more often than I expected coming from this director. In the way the housing crisis was the main event of The Big Short, Dick Cheney is the focus of Vice, and while it’s a welcome change of pace from McKay’s last film, the script does not do enough to keep Dick’s story interesting. It goes for a hail mary in the last scene that works surprisingly well, which left me wondering where McKay’s head was when he was writing the film. It switches less-than seamlessly from fantasy to major historical decisions, emphasizing the human impact of calls made by the George W. Bush administration, and while it is comforting that someone recognizes this, it feels out of place. The quick wit of The Big Short is gone, replaced by a dread that threatens to overtake every aspect of the film, and the humor that is present is implemented too awkwardly to give any reprieve.

Much like its subject, Vice is dim, bleak, and monotone. The film points this out, mentioning that a story about a drab bureaucrat could not be very important, then makes a point to prove that wrong. As in The Big Short, there are moments in Vice where characters seem to be talking to the audience, or exist in a place separate from time to make a point. The best instance of this involves Dick (Christian Bale) and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) settling an issue in Shakespearean prose, only because no one knows how they decided that Dick would accept Bush’s running mate offer. Moments like this are refreshing, and do more than just poke fun. They communicate something that should not be discounted when watching Vice, that there is very little known about Dick Cheney. Considered the most powerful Vice President in American history, he has a rich story to unpack, and Vice attempts to tell it in full. Bale does a wonderful impression, but can’t turn the blank looks and political jargon into gold like Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell do. It wouldn’t matter if this was an ensemble film, but it’s not. Vice is 100% reliant on Cheney, and without a technique to make him more interesting, he becomes one of the low points. Part of this results from Bale’s immersive acting style, which has served him poorly in this case, but a larger part comes from the lackluster storytelling. The film dabbles in a multi-decade epic, drawing from every administration Cheney served under to inform the present story, but not enough to be a consistent device. The main frame  is narration from Jesse Plemons, an unnamed guide who often halts scenes to explain what is happening. Just as in The Big Short, it comes off as condescending, but in this case every digression springs from the narrator. There are no creative edits or jarring stops: everything is clear from a mile away, and with a lack of surprises the film starts to sag. Vice doesn’t know if it’s a serious examination or a parody, and doesn’t do either well.

It is not, however, a bad movie. There are moments of unabashed hilarity, like the fake-out ending an hour in, complete with bright lighting and cliche title cards. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld is inspired, though he isn’t used nearly enough to be a major player in the film’s sorely lacking humor department. You can see what McKay was going for. His ability to find humor in disaster is in tact, but the inclusion of serious themes has shaken his ability to write a cohesive script. While not the trainwreck some are claiming it to be, Vice is a rocky film that feels like a step back for McKay, in a rare moment of tone deafness for the director.