As is sadly fitting for a trio that made some adult men absolutely ruin the holidays, the Step Brothers creative team isn’t having a great Christmas. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly just put out the abysmal Holmes and Watson, while, at the same time, director Adam McKay has just released his own filmography low-point: Vice, a film that’s not so much bad as it is an amateurish disappointment for someone sleepwalking through a solid biopic and into a pretty lame Michael Moore knock-off—but now with A-list dramatizations!
Not that McKay hasn’t done solid work in well-earned leftist screeds. His last movie, The Big Short, was a solid bit of infotainment; an explanatory essay as narrative, it gave an equal measure of faces and facts to the recent financial crisis. Vice is nowhere near so deft. Though McKay opens it with a title card claiming the filmmakers “did [their] best” in telling the true-to-life tale of Dick Cheney, that itself is a half-truth. While the film seemingly does tell as much of a truth as it could, it’s far from the best it could be given the outstanding, dedicated performance of its leads.
Christian Bale, notching another drastic weight change in his ever-changing belt, stars as Cheney. He delivers on a side-speaking, grey-haired, overweight, soon-to-be-hospitalized figurehead like no one since Brian Cox in Rushmore, genuinely dissolving into his performance. Amy Adams, as always, delights, playing Cheney’s wife, Lynne. Sam Rockwell, as George W. Bush, borders on an SNL host’s Dubbya, but it’s also kind of perfect. Telling of how good all their work is, Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld is hardly worth mentioning. (Jesse Plemons, in a role revealed late in the film for a light snort, narrates in first person and occasionally addresses the camera directly, making this thing feel even more like a smirking documentary. )
So it’s a shame that Vice isn’t fully about any of these characters. Not as captivatingly focused as First Man nor as all-out entertaining as I, Tonya, the film stretches as broad as its expanded Bale-belly allows; instead of focusing on a single man, building to his historical accomplishment—even an awful one or several—Vice builds to an ever-increasing, more-encompassing tangent, ranting on right-wing bullshit.
While Cheney is the film’s grotesque through line, it’s by way of lazy bullet-points, conjecture, and, worst, some of the hackiest visual metaphors ever committed to a mainstream feature. Cheney is “fishing” to see whether George W. will accept his plan? Cut to: literal fish Cheney is attempting to reel in. Cheney is betraying the lesbian daughter he once defended? Cut to: his heart literally being removed. By comparison, The House That Jack Built’s killer-victim-meets-predator-prey stock footage looks positively subtle. Though, not to be outdone, McKay ran up his own Getty bill, too: telling of just how unfocused it is, Vice features superfluous clips ranging from jovial MAGA supporters to Budweiser’s “Whassup?” commercial. Because how else would one communicate that it’s the end of the ’90s?
Vice is not so much a portrait of its wretched subject as a series of his bullet points, punctuated by some unexpectedly hilarious cardiac events, pumping through all the ways a single Vice President managed to fuck up the modern era. But, in a way, that too makes it a sadly fitting holiday release. Merry Christmas, Dick Cheney: this is your Christmas Carol. It’s far from inspiring in more ways than one.
Director: Adam McKay
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 132 minutes
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill