Vice is the second awards-season offering from writer/director Adam McKay that deals with current events. In 2015, he released The Big Short, a successful drama about the housing crisis of 2008. That film introduced its complicated subject matter with a very specific kind of satirical ease that made it all remarkably easy to follow, even as it threw terminology and figures at you at a breakneck speed. As a result, this movie that could have felt very dry and by-the-numbers felt thrilling and immediate. His follow-up is not quite as successful, and there are several key reasons why.
Vice follows Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) as he and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) navigate the world of politics in Washington, DC. It follows his rise to power and shines a light on what George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) didn’t do in his administration, and what Cheney was actually behind. More than that, we learn how essential Lynne Cheney was in this whole process, and how any success he achieved would not have happened without her.
Vice thinks it needs to throw jargon, charts, and graphs at you the same way The Big Short did. And of course, it doesn’t. Anyone with a basic understanding of the way American politics work can follow this movie, no problem. Occasionally, there will be a joke or a storytelling device that cuts like a knife in the way that McKay so clearly wants it to. But these moments are few and far between. A great moment involves a fake-movie-ending halfway through, where credits even begin to roll. It’s irreverent and biting in a way this movie tries for consistently but isn’t able to achieve.
Christian Bale continues to be a true chameleon, and he’s unrecognizable for the entirety of this movie. He’s giving a performance that is simultaneously understated and menacing. He embodies Dick Cheney in a way that I don’t think any other actor could. However, this role brings up the same problem that First Man brought up for Ryan Gosling. How do you play a real-life figure that never so much as cracked a smile? This isn’t a character that audiences are invited to emotionally connect to in any way. But at least in Vice, it’s made clear why the character is presented this way.
Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney is this film’s secret weapon. In a larger supporting role, she presents a character that makes you wish the whole film was about her. She describes early on in a matter-of-fact way that women just weren’t going to end up in positions of power in those days, and she’s ready to settle with being the woman behind the man. But she was always involved in any part of the decision making or whenever her husband was looking to take an opponent down. If Lynne Cheney was really this cunning and this ruthless and smart the whole time, why aren’t we watching a movie about her? Amy Adams is certainly up to the task.
Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld, and this is, ironically, the best Steve Carell performance of the year, when the other two looked like Oscar hopefuls. Tyler Perry plays Colin Powell, and he continues the trend of doing good work in everyone’s movies but his own. Allison Pill and Lily Rabe play Cheney’s daughters, and both are quite good in their small roles.
The problem here is never the quality of the acting. Everyone here is doing fine work. It’s about how this movie is edited. It moves back and forth in different time periods, and is edited with a self-satisfied, ‘aren’t we clever?’ attitude that gets old fast. Lots of visual cues of the lion chasing after its prey, or just, lots of still photographs of fishing lures. Like, we get it. The problem is also with the script, which lingers on certain things too long and breezes by others too quickly. It’s only sometimes as sharp as it needs to be. It’s shrewd and sardonic at times, but at others treats its subject with kid gloves.
Overall, I would say that Vice is almost a good film. It’s intelligent and thought-provoking, but also quite obvious and messy. It’s well-acted, but you get the impression that everyone here thinks they’re in a better movie. Adam McKay should absolutely try this again one day because there is a lot of ambition here and some of it is used for good. I’m sure his movie about the current political administration will be something to behold. But he should wait a while before he attempts this again.