Part-Goodfellas self-aware crime epic, part-Fahrenheit 9/11 true-life horror story, Vice’s form is more interesting than its muddled story and heavy use of prosthetics. The film focuses on the life and political career of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), charting his rise in American politics and subsequent influence on the Bush administration.
Adam McKay has already experimented with real-life events and fourth wall-breaking in The Big Short to great effect, using pop culture-infused cutaways (such as Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining mortgage bonds) to make the complicated and dry economic jargon more digestible to a wider audience. This technique alone turned The Big Short from a run-of-the-mill true-life drama, into an sharp, entertaining and informative takedown of the 2008 financial crash worthy of awards recognition (McKay and Charles Randolph won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2016). And now comes Vice, the culmination of Adam McKay’s move from ‘low-brow’ comedy to Oscar-bait drama complete with top-tier actors donning prosthetics and wigs to play real people (the Academy tend to love that). McKay’s fun, irreverent and, at times, brutal dismantling of the duplicitous Bush-era White House is oiled but also hindered by his tinkering with form.
Much of The Big Short’s stylistic calling cards can be found in Vice and are amped up to an almost parodic level – pop music, freeze-frames, title cards, narration, direct address and library footage are weaved in and out of the more traditional fourth-wall-intact scenes to a dizzying and almost overwhelming effect. Editor Hank Corwin, no stranger to a political epic, does an admirable job of wrestling this barrage of ideas into a semi-coherent biopic/video essay hybrid. It’s clear that off of the success of The Big Short, McKay lacked an objective middle-man to tell him not to throw every available idea at the screen – the constant, undiluted interjections actually serve to make the plot less clear. Where were you this time Randolph?
Whereas the fun cutaways of the The Big Short helped to inform the audience, the shear amount of these digressions in Vice mean that each acerbic notion is cut very short, giving the audience little time to actually digest and understand the onslaught of information. An assortment of celebrities are on hand to guide the audience through this, quite frankly, messy structure – Naomi Watts periodically appears as a news anchor and Alfred Molina appears to deliver one of the most heavy-handed analogies committed to film. Perhaps the strangest creative choice of all is the replacing of real-life people by Hollywood actors in factual footage – the sketchy effects serving to distract than having any kind of narrative impact. If McKay had presented both the fictional and real versions of these politicians it would have been a great basis for comparison between their private/public personas. This would feed into the film’s analysis of Cheney’s power over Washington and, by proxy, global politics, but instead lacks the sting it needs.
The over-packed clunkiness of Vice is a shame, because there are some very effective allusions buried in this mind-dump of a film. Notable scenes include a bedroom Macbeth homage between Dick and Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), the fishing/seduction of Bush (Sam Rockwell), and the (spoilerific) payoff of Jesse Plemons’ narrator character. Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice brief shots of the actors corpsing during some scenes, as if the politics of power is a laughing matter. These, however, are small moments and a frustrating display of where this film could have gone.
Despite Vice‘s incoherency, there are plenty of strong performances by an ensemble of McKay regulars. They are all overshadowed, however, by the admittedly incredible transformation of Bale as Cheney. In fact, the film’s fondness for Bale and his performance becomes slightly problematic when it verges on glorifying a character that is utterly despicable.
I have to admit that I was excited about the prospect of Vice. Whilst McKay’s outright comedies can be fairly hit or miss, The Big Short presented an intriguing shift in the writer/director’s career, and his fusing of cinematic techniques beckoned a new and unconventional direction for the biopic genre. So whilst Vice may not hit the mark completely, its aim to make a complex subject accessible to a broad audience is commendable, attempting to subvert established notions of high and low culture. Well-known for encouraging improvisation on-set, McKay’s latest is much like a sketch show in that some of its ideas make an impact and many don’t, but one must appreciate the shear confidence and quantity of ideas on display here. It’s certainly far more ambitious and creative than some recent biopics (I’m looking at you Bohemian Rhapsody). Vice stomps along with a genuinely magnetic performance from Bale, but is yet to fully consolidate the best of Adam McKay’s varied stylings.
Writer/Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell
Release Date: 25th January