When I think of actors portraying Vice President Dick Cheney, I’ll always jump to Richard Dreyfuss in W. first. Remember that scene around the war room, when he emerges literally from the shadows and outlines a sinister plot to take Iraq’s oil and establish permanent American hegemony in the Middle East? Dreyfuss didn’t sound much like Cheney — he sounded like Dreyfuss — but the sequence is better written and more believable anything in Adam McKay’s scattered and elephantine Vice.
In McKay’s biopic, it’s Christian Bale taking on the imperial veep, an unlikely choice, which is exactly the point. Like his castmates Steve Carell, as Donald Rumsfeld, and Tyler Perry, as Colin Powell, the novelty is everything, each performance a freakish triumph of hair and makeup and, in Bale’s case, 40 extra pounds. Unlike Dreyfuss, Bale rises to the glottal challenges of Cheney’s voice, with its guttural enunciations, its frequent throat-clearing. Playing a similarly gravel-voiced superhero for three films helps.
But the more time you invest in Vice, you realize that it isn’t just the casting that’s a stunt: It’s the entire movie, a shapeless and ADD-addled hatchet job that, in skewering a figure who left office with a 13-percent approval rating, spends most of its duration punching down.
McKay opens on a hard-partying Cheney (apparently, such a creature existed) pulled over for a DUI in his hometown of Casper, Wyo., in 1963. Then suddenly it’s the morning of 9/11, where the vice president is escorted into a White House safe room and, coolly and without reservations, usurps the chain of command from the absent president.
Then a voiceover narrator (Jesse Plemons) intrudes with a didactic diatribe about Cheney’s legacy. Then we’re back to Dick’s college days — a confusing montage of bar fights, admonishing report cards and vomit-flecked dorm-room carpets, after which Dick is scolded by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, unpersuasive when delivering stilted dialogue) for his hedonistic behavior. Then, 12 minutes in, the opening credits run, as if they were spliced into the wrong part of the reel and just left there.
From here on, McKay makes a game attempt at a sensible chronology, charting Cheney’s ascent from congressional intern to Rumsfeld, in the Nixon White House, to his short tenure as chief of staff to Gerald Ford — becoming the youngest person to hold that position — to his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, his defense secretary post under George H.W. Bush and, finally, his eight years as the malevolent puppeteer of the Bush 43 administration.
Along the way, McKay delights in veering off course, interrupting the flow — such as one exists — with more voiceover narration, with on-the-nose stock footage of animal conquests, with documentary clips of political figures quoted out of context in a foggy attempt to riff on today’s political dystopia. Ronald Reagan’s desire to “make America great again” is perfunctorily and smugly trotted out, a la Michael Moore at his laziest.
At one point, Dick and Lynne turn an exchange of bedroom talk into a Shakespearean dialogue. In another, Dick addresses the camera, implicating his audience in a tired House of Cards retread. There’s even a false end-credit sequence midway through, preceded by onscreen text laid over bucolic crane shots, that imagines a happily-ever-after for the Cheneys had Dick not selected himself for vice president. This, I admit, is pretty funny, but when you throw so much putty against a wall, some of it is bound to stick.
McKay played this game in The Big Short, too, diverting us away from arid financial jargon with comedy-sketch cutaways. In that film, we had Anthony Bourdain simplifying collateralized debt obligations while chopping up discarded seafood; in Vice, we have Alfred Molina as a waiter in a high-end restaurant, explaining Orwellian “menu items” like “extraordinary rendition” and “enemy combatant” designations to a lip-licking Cheney and his inner circle, who were then fully invested in post-9/11 constitutional dismantling. What worked in the former film just seems precious and trivializing here.
The assertion undergirding the humor, and indeed this movie’s thrust, is that Cheney was the de facto president during these eight consequential years. If the film is eye-opening at all, it’s in revealing the breadth of his power grab, which included being blind-copied on every email sent to and from the president, receiving Bush’s presidential daily briefing before Bush did, and establishing an unprecedented number of offices in the House, Senate, Pentagon and CIA. In turn, Bush, played by a bumbling and nuance-free Sam Rockwell, is presented as Cheney’s useful idiot.
And then, having established Cheney’s trampling of privacy at home and his reign of terror abroad, McKay runs out of things to say. Vice becomes a formless review of its subject’s late-career lowlights: his famously telling Sen. Pat Leahy to “go f–k yourself,” his ordering the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in retaliation against her truth-telling husband; his filling a friend’s neck with buckshot while “hunting” for drugged quail; his chilling response to a reporter’s questioning of the cost of the Iraq War with a defiant “So?”
Without a decent framework on which to hang, it’s just a rote and shallow stream of consciousness. Vice is going for symphonic sweep, but it’s played without a conductor — and without even the faintest attempt to humanize or penetrate its antagonist beyond his Mephistophelian surface. McKay goes to great lengths to establish that his subject is heartless, metaphorically and physically. It’s too bad the same could be said for his movie.
VICE. Director: Adam McKay; Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry; Distributor: Annapurna; Rating: R; Opens: Christmas Day at most area theaters