Adam McKay probably doesn’t realise the irony that is unmistakingly plastered across his new film. Using many of the same flashy techniques that made The Big Short equally as shallow, Vice attempts to dazzle its audience with a never ending parade of sleight-of-hand trickery. Sure, governments do everything in their power to hoodwink the general public, but if McKay is trying to make serious points with his films (which seems to be the case) then he should realise just how close he is to aping those he is so critical of.
Using comedy to say something serious is nothing new, but McKay’s use of it here turns one of the most damaging political figures of the past 20-30 years into little more than a comedy figure. If McKay’s intention wasn’t to highlight Dick Cheney’s long list of ‘crimes’, which includes being driving force behind the invasion of Iraq, destabilising the Middle East, the torturing of countless political prisoners, spying on millions of citizens and trying to turn the Presidency into an autocracy, then the constant stream of gags might have some value.
After a career of body changes in films like The Machinist and Batman Begins, Christian Bale literally piled on 45 pounds for a role that also hopes to gobble up an Oscar next month. He’s joined by a strong supporting cast including Amy Adams (wife Lynne Cheney), Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush) and Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld), who appear as the main players during Cheney’s time at the White House, with Tyler Perry also doing a passable Colin Powell impersonation.
Vice plots the rise of Cheney from a boozy no-hoper on the brink of losing his wife Lynne, through to his manipulation of power behind the scenes during the Bush presidency. Cheney slowly rises up the ranks during the Nixon and Ford administrations, before turning the vice presidency - largely regarded as an empty role - into a position that allows him to dictate and control policy at will. Rather than follow a strictly linear narrative, McKay’s hyperactive style mashes together a myriad of visual aesthetics in an attempt to add some life to a rather staid subject matter.
Arguably, there is some logic behind using this collage style, which includes using an in-story narrator (Jesse Plemons), fourth wall breaking and meta commentary (and a little Macbeth) amongst other devices. After all, there is a lot of ground to cover, taking in four decades of names, faces, job titles and political manoeuvring. If aimed primarily at a younger audience, then adding on all these bells and whistles might make it easier to digest. But Vice's audience will largely be older and it's a miscalculation that instead comes across as patronising. The dumbing down of the material smugly positions McKay (who also wrote the script) as being far smarter than anyone watching it. Which is hardly what you'd call a winning strategy.
Then there’s Bale’s take on Cheney, which has seen him pick up a number of nominations at recent award shows. He may have chosen to grow his own fat suit rather than wear one, as Gary Oldman did last year, but it feels just as gimmicky and too much like a performance. But that is where the Oldman comparisons end. In the context of how Cheney is being targeted by McKay in his film, seeing Bale play him as a caricature undermines the seriousness of the ills he seems so furious about.
In fact, McKay’s whole style comes off as sugar-coated with little of substance to chew on. Cheney evolves from a drunken bum into an unstoppable Machiavellian schemer with little to no explanation given as to why. Was his wife Lynne the real driving force? Was it all to profit oil field company Halliburton, where Cheney was made CEO in the mid-90s? Or simply power for power’s sake? There are nods towards all of these ideas but not one is sold with conviction.
Meanwhile, Cheney’s fingerprints are left on some of the most devastating political changes made to the modern world in the past 20 years. Due to his daughter Mary coming out as gay, we are told he remains a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights to this day. There is family conflict between Mary and her older sister Liz about this subject, which McKay uses to humanise Cheney. It’s an odd decision, almost as if he lost his nerve in going for the jugular. If you’re willing to turn Cheney into a man responsible for negatively affecting billions of lives, pointing us towards his ‘softer’ side seems redundant.
A small side note has to be made about Carell’s performance. Increasingly he appears as no-one else other than Steve Carell in many of his roles. There is some physical resemblance to Rumsfeld but beyond that you can almost hear Brick Tamland waiting to break out. In many ways it sums up the larger problem with Vice. It’s a film so enamoured by its own looks that once it opens its mouth you just want to cover your ears. The longer it continues smirking, winking and nudging our ribs, the more exasperating it becomes.
Vice is released in nationwide in the UK on Friday 25th January.