76. Vice

”Vice”

Nominated for eight Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor for Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor, Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress, Best Directing for Adam McKay, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

Grade: D+

Christian Bale shaved his head and packed on 40 pounds to become Dick Cheney. It’s an uncanny transformation, and a testament to Bale’s crazed dedication as an actor. He nails every aspect of the former VP, right down to the facial tics and strategically placed pauses. Read more

Christian Bale shaved his head and packed on 40 pounds to become Dick Cheney. It’s an uncanny transformation, and a testament to Bale’s crazed dedication as an actor. He nails every aspect of the former VP, right down to the facial tics and strategically placed pauses.

And that’s the last nice thing I’ll say about this movie.

Because “Vice” is bad. Incredibly bad. A prestige-season fumble the likes of which we rarely see.

It’s not funny. It’s never insightful. It’s smug — a rotten, lifeless bore of a biopic that tries to paper over its scattershot info-dump of a screenplay with a general feeling of comedy but with few actual jokes.

Writer/director Adam McKay (whose work I often love) took this same approach to real-life events with “The Big Short.” In that film, McKay used a series of devices (voiceover, fourth wall-breaking, Margot Robbie explaining finance terms) to tell the impossibly complex particulars of the 2008 financial crisis.

And it worked. But “Vice” lacks the (relatively) focused story of “The Big Short.” The new film spans decades, and McKay’s throw-everything-at-the-wall style of storytelling just makes for a mess. It’s a scattershot sprint through the last 50 years of American history, hitting the highlights of Cheney’s doings without digging into the why of them. The frenetic, ADD-addled pace of the editing doesn’t give a single scene or idea the room to breathe.

For all its fast-talkin’, twitchy-eyed energy, “Vice” doesn’t reveal much about Cheney himself. His motivations are presented simply as greed and megalomania. (Which, fair enough, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting movie.)

The film refuses to wrestle with Cheney’s ideologies until near the end — when he looks into the camera and explains himself. It’s an interesting scene, one that finally has something to say about Cheney’s reasons — for pushing through the Iraq War, expanding the executive powers, etc. But even this feels facile. And anyway, it comes at the tail end of far too much B.S. to matter.

“Vice” starts with Cheney as a young man in Wyoming — though he was born in Lincoln, Nebraska — and ends with his late-in-life heart transplant. In between, the film jumbles up its timeline, hopping around the administrations of Nixon through Bush 43. The movie checks off all the notable moments of Cheney’s life and passes them by with little more than a cursory glance.

“Vice” primarily focuses on Cheney’s relationship with his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), whom McKay characterizes as a red-state Lady Macbeth. In fact, the movie goes out of its way to underline the comparison: In the worst scene of 2018, Dick and Lynne quote Shakespeare before stumbling into a bout of weird, sweaty sex.

Cheney’s second-most-important relationship is with Donald Rumsfeld (a horribly miscast Steve Carell), Cheney’s boss in their early days in Washington, and later his ally in the Bush administration.

Shortly after he starts working for Rumsfeld, Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” Rumsfeld answers with sneering laughter.

Cheney’s scenes with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, doing a fine impression) at least possess some comedic zing. But even here McKay can’t help but undercut the movie with his tricks — in this case, cross-cutting their conversations with nature footage of predators attacking their prey. And that’s not all! We also get Cheney’s inner monologue. And some vague visual metaphor about fishing. And the score sort of drowning out the dialogue. And and and ...

So many tricks in this movie. Like a waiter (played by Alfred Molina) explaining the legal reaches of the war on terror. Like a happily-ever-after fake-out at the movie’s midpoint. Like the listless voiceover narration by a mystery man (played by Jesse Plemons) whose relationship to Cheney later becomes apparent.

So much of Plemons’ voice over amounts to: “Hey, viewer, you know who that is? That’s (insert name of notable person).” This is how we meet Roger Ailes, Antonin Scalia, Dennis Hastert and countless other famous figures. They stop by, say their line and leave the movie. Their presence amounts to nothing.

The film isn’t without a few good zingers. But too much of the dialogue is painfully obvious: “I’m happy to get rid of any big government regulations.” Or: “No one has shown the world the true power of the American presidency.”

If McKay doesn’t know when to quit with all the bells and whistles, he just botches the fundamentals. This movie has no core.

So what went wrong here?

Well, I think “Vice” ended up being a bad movie because it couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a stupid comedy or a self-important Oscar movie. If it had leaned more heavily on the former, the movie’s messiness might have worked in its favor. McKay’s earlier efforts “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers” are complete messes and also two of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

But “Vice” is too concerned with saying something IMPORTANT about America. How wrong we’ve gone. That’s a fine goal for a movie, but a much harder bar to clear. And McKay whiffs it.

The film’s self-seriousness reaches its crappy crescendo in the finale, with McKay tossing in random footage of calamities in recent American history: wildfires, the opioid epidemic, Alex Jones.

Like much else in “Vice,” it’s ill-conceived, noisy, signifying nothing.

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