REVIEW: Vice (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Annapurna Pictures

The following is a review of Vice — Directed by Adam McKay.

In recent years, comedy filmmaker Adam McKay has successfully changed his reputation in Hollywood. He was once thought of as one of the great funny-man directors of the industry, with such films as Anchorman and The Other Guys. But with 2015’s The Big Short — a film about the financial crisis of 2008 — McKay became known for his unconventional techniques in covering a disastrous true story. It didn’t work for everyone, but, for the most part, I really enjoyed his first foray into this style of political filmmaking. 

Vice is Adam McKay’s second politically-charged film in a row that is sure to ruffle some feathers. Vice tells the story of Dick Cheney’s ascent towards ultimate influence on the politics of the United States. We see him during his days as a drunken buffoon jeered by his ambitious wife, and we meet the people who allowed him to rise through the ranks of the Republican Party on his way to the vice-presidency, even though he, according to this film, is not driven by political ideology. Instead, he is, according to McKay, driven towards power simply to please his wife and family.

“What do we believe?”

Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney in McKay’s film, and he is thus returning to work with the director who helped Bale earn an Oscar-nomination for The Big Short. Bale, as he is known to do, is completely transformed here. Though the make-up styling is extraordinary here for everyone but one character, Bale has also undergone a tremendous change to his body by gaining a lot of weight.

The British acting chameleon who has, rightly, received a lot of praise and accolades for his impressive performance recently thanked ‘Satan’ during an acceptance speech, but his performance as the charisma-free V.P. is not just all covered in darkness.

Though McKay unsubtly calls Cheney heartless through symbolism in his film, Bale’s Cheney is motivated by devotion and love, or so it seems. Bale is spectacular, his performance feels fully-formed, and, at a point, you really do forget it’s him. I genuinely think it’s an astoundingly good impersonation.

Lynne, Dick Cheney’s devoted and headstrong wife, is played very well by the incomparable Amy Adams. She is very good here, and she certainly makes the most of her character, but it is a limited role. Adams’ Lynne is a strong yin to Cheney’s yang. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get more than maybe two or three notable scenes, most of which appear at the beginning of the film.

The last two performances I want to mention are delivered by Sam Rockwell and Steve Carrell. Sam Rockwell plays President George W. Bush, and though his sketch show-like performance is undeniably fun, there really is not much to his character at all. Steve Carrell gets a little bit more to work with as the former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld — the slimy politician who facilitated Cheney’s move into politics. Unfortunately, I thought that Carrell’s make-up was really distracting in multiple scenes, and, for that reason, I did not get a good grasp on his character.

It is often suggested that history is defined by great men, and films about presidential figures have often had hagiographical structures. Vice is not that kind of film, though. Though Cheney most certainly had a noticeable impact on the state of the presidency and history, the film treats this influence in a curious way. Vice is condescending and witty, and even though it certainly has moments that emphasize the disastrous impact of his presidency, those moments are drowned out by the clearly noticeable and intrusive editing choices.

McKay’s politically-charged, unconventional style is tongue-in-cheek, damning, but, most definitely, condescending. This time, you see Alfred Molina play a waiter who reads a menu to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others, but the items on the menu are possible controversial moves that they can make — like interrogation tactics. In another scene, McKay has Bale and Adams converse in Shakespearian dialogue, and, at the very end, he criticizes audience-members directly in a scene depicting a focus group. It is sketch-comedy on the big screen.

In the editing room, editor Hank Corwin got his director’s style across well, but that doesn’t make the style any less intrusive. There are freeze frames, playbacks, and transitions, cuts, or title cards used for comedic effect. This is extremely fun with a confusing but hilarious fake-out ending halfway through the film, but, in most other cases, the editing style was intrusive to an alarming extent.

Vice is comedic, dark, and certainly informative for those unfamiliar with all the steps of Cheney’s political career, though, obviously, this kind of career-focused film is often no more in-depth than a cursory Wikipedia-page. It also would not be wrong to classify this as ‘style over substance,’ but, for once, that critique is not used to condemn an artsy film.

McKay, in my opinion, gets in the way of the portrait he is trying to paint on the big screen. Though his style, though certainly hit-or-miss, is entertaining, some scenes tend to make it somewhat unclear what McKay is trying to say. His is a comedic but dark film about an incompetent but intelligent man rising to power without political purpose thus positioning himself by the steering wheel during historical disasters. But McKay’s focus on his own facetious style makes Vice feel unfinished and, definitely unfocused.

Adam McKay’s Vice is an unconventional biopic about a controversial figure of American politics that features unsubtle symbolism, has an unclear understanding of the motivations of the ‘great man of history’ that the film is about, and expresses an, at times, facetious attitude to the subject matter before it points the finger at certain audience members in a mean-spirited mid-credits scene.

Nevertheless, though McKay’s film makes many wildly different risky attempts to tell the story (not all of which work well), Vice somehow works as an entertaining and undeniably watchable run-through of recent history from the perspective of a mysterious real-life character. Though the film did run out of steam for me, in the final thirty minutes or so, the film as a whole contains many strong elements, including strong performances, memorable editing choices, and, though some of the comedic scenes fall flat, it has some moments of hilarity that are home runs (including the great fake-out ending).

I am of two minds with Vice. I don’t think Adam McKay’s style is right for this story, but I would be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy major parts of the film. It may not be great art or particularly thought-provoking, but what Adam McKay’s Vice does have going for it is that even though it can be read as a superficial tonal mess, it is a wildly entertaining film.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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