FILM REVIEW – VICE. With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill. Written and directed by Adam McKay. Rated R for language and some violent images. 132 minutes.
Writer/director Adam McKay has done some very funny comedies with Will Ferrell, such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Yet while he aspires to do more serious films he can’t let go of the shtick. So, in “The Big Short,” about the stock market crash that led to the Great Recession, he interrupts the action to have actress Margot Robbie taking a bubble bath explaining the concept of “sub-prime loans.” There have been filmmakers who excelled at both comedy and drama – Billy Wilder comes to mind – but they understood how to strike a delicate balance when adding comic moments in their dramatic films, or vice versa.
With VICE, McKay does a somewhat better job, helped by focusing on a singular character, but still he can’t help himself. There are moments that betray his roots on “Saturday Night Live” which would be fine if this was just a sketch, but completely undercuts the material when telling a straight story in a feature length film. As a result, this biopic of Dick Cheney, vice president under George W. Bush, gets interrupted for a mock ending (including closing credits), or a scene where the Cheneys shift to Shakespearean dialogue. McKay may believe he’s showing his cleverness, but what he’s doing is throwing the viewer out of the story. The result is a movie that can’t decide if it’s serious, satiric, or a lampoon.
Its obvious strength is a bravura performance by Christian Bale as Cheney. After a few scenes of him as a young man, he is transformed into the Cheney who was in the news as part of several Republican administrations. The make-up job is impressive, but it’s the actor who makes it work. He has Cheney’s crooked smile down pat, as well as the man’s ability to sound perfectly reasonable as he mutters some outrageous claims, such as paving the way for the invasion of Iraq due to the “weapons of mass destruction” that were never found.
The serious parts of the film are effective, and show Cheney as a man ready to do whatever is necessary to achieve his goals. Bale is helped by Amy Adams as his wife, the similarly ambitious Lynn Cheney, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, whose relationship with Cheney evolves as they take on different roles. Sam Rockwell’s turn as Bush walks a fine line, showing a man easily manipulated by Cheney without turning him into a caricature.
The film is at its best depicting Cheney’s situational ethics. When he agrees to be Bush’s running mate, he notes that his younger daughter Mary (Alison Pill), is an out lesbian, and he cannot go along with the anti-gay platform of the Republicans. Throughout the Bush years Cheney was hardly waving the banner of gay liberation, but when the matter came up (as in the vice-presidential debates) he would quietly express his love and support for Mary. However – as shown here – when her sister Liz (Lily Rabe) was running for office and came under attack for not being sufficiently supportive of “traditional marriage,” Cheney and his wife publicly sided with Liz who announced she opposed gay marriage, causing a family rift.
As a study of a vice president who took on more power than anyone in that position before or since, “Vice” provides a schooling in recent American history. Yet because its filmmaker still wants to play the clown, it falls short of what it could have been.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.