Early on in Vice, a voiceover informs us that Dick Cheney has a gift for making the most insane ideas sound normal. This is followed by an apocryphal scene in which he proposes that the president (then Gerald Ford) and his closest advisers engage in a circle jerk, in public, on the White House lawn, an idea to which the president enthusiastically agrees.
It’s a mildly funny shot at Cheney but works much better as a metaphor for what seems to have transpired in the film’s writing room: Vice is an unequivocal catastrophe of a movie, one that could only have emerged from the ideologically aroused emotional state of the normally reliable director Adam McKay.
“Genre-bending” is a term applied, at times complimentarily, to movies that defy the ordinary boundaries separating comedy from, say, a drama. But to do this effectively, you have to know what your underlying ingredients (comedy, drama) are.
In the case of Vice, McKay – whose directorial resume has taken on a more distinctly political hue in recent years – clearly doesn’t. Throughout his long career, even at his best, he has at times allowed his righteous id to perforate an otherwise cohesive narrative. In a 1995 Second City revue he helped create, a sketch interspersed scenes depicting Noam Chomsky as a substitute teacher with the dissonance of “cast members…[reciting] statistics about how, say, military spending dwarfed welfare spending.” The end credits of the Great Recession-era movie The Other Guys, a riotous sendup of the buddy-cop genre, roll alongside Vox.com-style animated graphics on everything from the evils of the T.A.R.P. bailout to Goldman Sachs’ effective tax rate. It’s about as congruous as lecturing a kindergarten class on retirement investing strategy.
The storyline of The Big Short, a 2015 adaptation of the Michael Lewis book, turned out to be a better match for McKay’s political fury. The true story follows finance-world underdogs who bet big that the Wall Street frat-bros had no idea what they were doing. The underdogs were right. McKay (and Lewis before him) masterfully transformed what could have been a staid, academic case study of the high-stakes but visually neutered universe of stock shorting into something sexier and, in its way, truer: The Big Short is a heist movie. The thieves are first the high priests of finance and later the ragtag band of eccentric quants that beats them at their own game. The victim is all the rest of us.
By contrast, Vice’s only victims are those who willingly choose to watch it. This is agonizing, because Dick Cheney is an even more gobsmackingly perfect subject for a McKay-style political heist movie than the antiheroes of The Big Short: a singular villain instead of a faceless array of traders, a largely nonverbal mystery man rather than the loud and brash club of 2000s-era investment bankers, and a rap sheet that involves the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, rather than the tragic, but generally less fatal, direct consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Instead, we are treated to a moment midway through the movie (before Cheney ascends to the vice presidency) when onscreen title cards wistfully announce that the Cheneys departed the political arena and spent their retirement raising golden retrievers, at which point faux-credits begin to roll. Ending the film on that facetious note would have been an act of mercy, but it’s not in McKay’s nature to let up easy: the virtue of a shorter running-time would have been another man’s Vice.
And thus the problems with McKay’s Vice are manifold and, frankly, unfixable. The story skips back and forth in time, seemingly at random, like an ersatz Christopher Nolan flick. (Here’s Dick Cheney as a young man, driving heavily under the influence after getting into a bar fight. Here he is as an elderly gentleman, fly-fishing. Here he is in a secure room on 9/11. Oh, now he’s back again as a young man drunk-driving.)
In a near-impossible achievement, Vice borrows one of the more talented actors in the business, Christian Bale, ensconces him behind layers of prosthetics and added weight, and reduces him to a grimacing automaton with a single facial expression and a personality singularly defined by artificially long pauses between words.
Perhaps this explains why the expository voiceovers are excruciating and interminable, at times veering into documentary territory with detours into the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of right-wing mass media. It often feels like McKay can’t decide who his viewers are or what they know, so he errs on the side of caution and spells everything out as explicitly as possible. (The “unitary executive” theory gets a lot of airtime.) But he simultaneously introduces an absurdly enormous supporting character ensemble (Paul Wolfowitz, John Yoo, Scooter Libby, David Addington, Frank Luntz, and Karl Rove, among others) that would stretch the memories of even seasoned political junkies, then often discards them after mere seconds onscreen (or, in the case of Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame, without them appearing at all).
His condescension towards the American public is rendered in brief but telling snippets. There’s a slow-mo close-up of young adults in the throes of ecstasy (and, probably, Ecstasy) at a nondescript party, a scene presumably meant to illustrate the apathy of the millennial set in the face of their government’s horrific actions, but which mostly reminded me that there are more enjoyable ways to spend one’s evening than shelling out thirteen bucks to watch a bad movie.
Similarly, a post-credits scene depicts a focus group session that devolves into politically-motivated fisticuffs, at which point one woman turns to another (the American dunces in Vice are all women) and says, “I can’t wait to see the new Fast & Furious movie. It’s going to be so lit.” This is an odd series of objections from the guy who spent the Bush years making movies about mustachioed ’70s-era news anchors, gay French racecar drivers, and a pair of adult step-brothers living with their geriatric parents.
In one of Vice’s few interesting subplots, Dick Cheney emerges as a bulwark of support for his gay daughter Mary at a time when political winds were driving the Republican Party towards a stridently antagonistic stance on gay marriage. Long after Cheney’s vice presidency had concluded, his daughter Liz decides to run for political office and, in a coldblooded betrayal of Mary, he gives his blessing to Liz’s decision to oppose gay marriage in order to win her race.
This could have made for a stark, if not entirely factual, portrayal of Cheney’s Machiavellian lust for (even vicariously obtained) power. But McKay ruins it by interspersing Cheney’s about-face with an extended montage of his heart transplant surgery: the metaphor is impossible to miss, as doctors are shown removing his heart in between scenes of his daughter Mary sobbing uncontrollably at his disloyalty. Get it? Get it? Get it?
Spoiler alert: Dick Cheney’s new heart, by the way, belongs to the movie’s omnipresent voiceover artist, who is variously shown narrating while raising kids, serving a tour of duty in Iraq, and going on a run in his suburban neighborhood. His extensive screen time – especially the scenes of him serving overseas in the military – heavily suggests that he is, in some as-yet unrevealed way, a casualty of Cheney’s decisions. In the end, he is just a casualty: run over by a random car while on a jog. His death is as senseless as everything else in Vice.