I’m trying to pinpoint the exact moment that Vice, Adam McKay’s political satire about former Vice President Dick Cheney, lost me.
I could almost say the first few seconds, when the words “Based on a true story” flashed on the screen, followed by a caveat that it was as true as possible considering how notoriously secretive Cheney is, followed by a cheeky, “But we did our f***ing best” (they used the actual expletive, needless to say). Something about that meta joke brought to mind the similar frat-boy rib-elbowing of the Marvel film Deadpool. Probably not a good sign for a political biopic.
I’d been a fan of McKay’s The Big Short, although almost despite myself. That film was also filled with insider jokes, meta digressions, and flights of “look man, I’m a director!” indulgence. But I admired its moxie, its freewheeling spirit, and how it took an incredibly complicated subject (the housing collapse of 2008) and made it so lucid and digestible. So yes, that film had its off-putting moments, but I liked it all the same. I wasn’t going to write off Vice based on one innocent gag in the titles.
No, the moment Vice lost me was several scenes later. At this point, we’ve already established that Cheney (Christian Bale) got kicked out of Yale for excessive partying, and was drifting aimlessly from one manual labor job to next until he was berated by his soon-to-be wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), and told to get his act together or she’d leave him. He gets an internship in Congress, goes to work for Dick Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), which he parlays into a full-time job. He learned much of his cold, political machinations from Rumsfeld—although he would eventually surpass him in both the depth and sheer imagination of his corruption—but at this point, he’s still earnest enough to believe there might be some noble point to it all.
“What do we believe?” he asks Rumsfeld.
And Rumsfeld starts to laugh, “What do we believe?” he says. He keeps laughing, until he goes into his office, shuts the door, and continues his belly laugh. “What do we believe?” he sputters from behind the door. “Sheee-it!”
The villainy depicted in this scene was so cartoonish, Rumsfeld may as well have pulled off a mask and revealed his true self, Scooby-Doo style.
What this suggested about the film was that it wasn’t a serious examination of these (admittedly awful) men, but a reductive exaggeration: Political Corruption For Dummies.
And McKay was just getting started. Everything I didn’t like in The Big Short is doubled down on here, especially those break-the-fourth-wall digressions. I won’t name them all, but suffice it to say, when the narrator (Jesse Plemons) says, “We can’t just snap into a Shakespearean soliquoy that dramatizes every feeling and motivation,” you know damn well that Dick and Lynn are soon going to be seen in bed, conversing in iambic pentameter. A menu of human rights and constitutional norms that Cheney and co. violated are recited by an actual waiter (Alfred Molina, in a cameo): “We’re offering a Rendition tonight,” he says. “Oh, that sounds delicious!” Rumsfeld coos. And so on.
Maybe this kind of thing appeals to you. After all, lots of people love those Deadpool movies. But it’s still hard to justify the film’s smugness. One of its larger themes is that Americans are too stupid, too willfully distracted by the shiny objects of popular culture to notice that bad men are running the government. In that sense, Vice falls squarely in that brand of culture that encourages the viewer to feel superior to the unwashed masses: They are too dumb to see all of this was happening! We get the meta jokes! We understand the corruption! We’re the cool kids!
That being said, not all of Vice is horrible. Bale is truly wonderful as Cheney. The makeup is, yes, uncanny, but it’s Bale’s work—tight lipped, measured (almost monotone) in tone, filled with the vaguest bit of contempt for everyone he encounters, that truly captures Cheney’s spirit. The film’s most compelling argument is that Cheney, with his bland look of white male authority, had a way of making even his most far-fetched abuses of power seem measured and reasonable. Bale plays that well. (He’s also hilarious in the many heart attack scenes. Every time Cheney is felled by a heart attack—dude had a lot of them—he’s grimly resigned to it, but vaguely annoyed that it gets in the way of his ongoing villainy.)
As for the rest of the cast: Carrel does a surprisingly spot-on Rumsfeld impression (he nails that quick, lizard-like smile); Sam Rockwell is hilarious as a clueless man-child George W. Bush; and Adams, who plays Lynn as a helmet-haired, Junior League Lady Macbeth, is great, as ever. But I’m actually slightly enraged that the jowly Bill Camp (a great actor!) was cast in an extended cameo as Gerald Ford. Has McKay ever seen Gerald Ford?
So yeah, Vice worked my last nerve. It’s true, I turned on it early, but trust me when I say it did nothing to endear itself to me as it went on.