It’s assumed that a Dinesh D’Souza documentary is the antithesis of what Michael Moore does. In fact, Adam McKay’s Vice is much more like a polarity reversal of D’Souza than the actual Moore. It’s so very low. Vice is in deep trouble from its first title card. What we’re about to see is a true story, we read. It was nearly impossible to unearth documents on the deeply secretive Dick Cheney, vice president of the US 2001-2009… “but we did our fucking best.”
You hear this line from your employee, your kid, or your studentslet alone from a true-life movieand you know that where you’re about to tread is going to mess up your shoes.
Certainly McKay’s star, Christian Bale reached a remarkable act of likeness, porking up in the same way he starved himself to a silhouette for The Mechanic. Bale mastered the truculent, side-of-the mouth snarl that the old oil man wears, and that grunt that he supposes makes him sound like John Wayne. Vice‘s shape has a familiar one in scripts lately, where we circle around from a grabber incident (in this case, Cheney receiving the news of the 9/11 attacks) to a long first act flashback that shows how we got to this point. Movies made this way seem like they have a half-hour long pre-title sequence.
McKay stresses emptiness from the beginning to the finale, when Cheney’s diseased heart is scooped out in front of us, as he endured that rare heart-transplant given to a 72 year old. It doesn’t like Cheney, but Vice isn’t fond of most of the working class either; commencing with cowboys in a Wyoming beer bar yee-hawing over a game of dice. Later on, a group of linemen stand about, unfeelingly, as one of their colleagues who has just fallen off a ladder lies sprawled on the ground with a compound fracture.
Cheney is, “what we’d call in today’s parlance, a dirtbag,” the mysterious omniscient narrator (Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad) intones. He partied his way out of Yale and got busted for drunk driving. All it takes is one stern talking to by his helmet-haired wife Lynn (Amy Adams) and he’s straightening up and taking on Washington D.C. Cheney goes to work with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, miscast once again) who tells him to “Keep your mouth shut, do what you’re told, and always be loyal.”
In 1968, the architects of this century’s many dilemmas were already gathering, from Roger Ailes on down. After some redacted years at Halliburton, Cheney becomes the veep pick of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Rockwell is actually the best piece of casting in the film, with the most humor and slobbiness, and the keenest bits of tragic political vaudeville: studying a piece of fried chicken as if it were a chess problem. If this movie had a crux, this is where that crux would be. Here, Cheney takes what looks like a dull backseat job from a none-too-bright princeling president and turns it into fiefdom. By some accounts, Cheney was in full control of every shameful deed perpetuated by the 43rd regime.
Sticking to the playbook he deployed in The Big Short, McKay tries to turn this tale into a post-moden carnival, with a parody of a happy ending for the country (literally rolling the credits, half an hour in). There is a quick flash of Marvel comics. A smirking waiter (Alfred Molina) at a posh restaurant offers Cheney and his cronies a list of extra-judicious tortures. Confessing an inability to depict Lynn Cheney stiffening Dick for his tasks ahead, as if in a play, the film has Lynn and Dick recite some Shakespeare. And yet this type of artifice is even less natural than the unironic sub-House of Cards bad-political-movie talk that makes up the rest of Vice. (Example, at a swank ball: “Half the room wants to be us, the other half hates us.”) Nicholas Britell’s bombastic soundtrack has 10 times the self-importance of the trumpet fanfares before a Sunday morning TV pundit-jamboree.
Misanthropy rarely gets this unfunny. Here, even Cheney’s sullen wiliness looks uninspired. His political feats aren’t more complex than his favorite avocation as an angler: all he needed for success was to stand around in icy waters long enough to fool some poor fish. In its final ironic use of the already ironic “America” from West Side Story, Vice flaunts its repellent spirit. “You chose me,” Cheney says, and the joke’s on us. If it’s supposed to be comedy, it’s too soon. If it’s supposed to be tragedy, it’s too frivolous.
R; 132 Mins.
CineArts, Santana Row