We are now about ten years removed from the Presidency of George W. Bush and yet Hollywood cannot seem to let go of the past. Vice, the biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is the latest in the long chain of dramas that slip into farce when tackling a subject the filmmaker despises (The Reagans, W., The Iron Lady). Partisanship aside, Vice is too haphazard in its efforts to meet its goal: make me hate Cheney the way writer/director Adam McKay hates Cheney.
Hopscotching from past and present with voiceover narration from Kurt (Jesse Plemons), whose connection to Cheney is eventually revealed, we see the slow, calculated rise of Richard Cheney (Christian Bale) from drunken ne'er-do-well in Wyoming to Congressional aide, to White House Chief of Staff, Wyoming's lone Congressman, Secretary of Defense and ultimately Vice President under President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).
Cheney had a mentor in Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) and was aided in his ruthless rise to power by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). Domestically, Cheney is proud of his daughters and has a soft spot for his youngest Mary (Allison Pill), to where even her lesbianism is not an issue or impediment to his love.
Cheney works hard to acquire more power than anyone in history for himself, using it for his own purposes. He may not have an emotional heart, but he ends up with a new physical heart thanks to Kurt. He is not only our narrator and guide through Vice, but he is also the man who had the heart Cheney now has implanted in his body, which former veteran Kurt is not too keen on.
Vice has more negatives than positives, primarily in its structure and tone. McKay clearly thinks a lot of Vice is either funny or infuriating or even a mix of the two. It's a pity he pretty much fails in all aspects.
I figure his to let Carrell's Rumsfeld be "Michael Scott Does Washington" or Rockwell's Dubya be a tired rehash of Vice producer Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live impersonation would have them rolling in the aisles. Instead, it all came off as bad, angry farce more fit for a Netroots Nation Variety Show than either a straightforward film or a comedy. It's all very self-satisfied and a little smug, but that might be forgiven if it were actually either funny or insightful.
Therein lies one issue with Vice: we've seen it all before, in particular Rockwell's spoof of George W. Bush. It's far too easy to continue with the 'Bush is a Moron' shtick. It requires a shorthand that makes the contradictory "George W. Bush is The New Hitler" seem strange. One wonders how one can be simultaneously a moron and a murderous mastermind. It wasn't a performance. It was caricature, something that can also apply to Carrell.
Bale's Cheney is a spot-on impersonation, his quiet vocal tones and inflections working perfectly to where it's surprising he never seems to raise his voice even when he's angry or coming as close as he ever will to justifying his wicked, wicked ways via a direct talk to the audience. As someone as secretive as Cheney is, I figure we'll never get to the man behind the myth. Despite the film's best efforts, one almost likes this Cheney, in particular for how his love for his daughter is not impaired or hindered by her lesbianism. It's surprisingly progressive.
Yet as much praise as Bale has been getting, I cannot shake the idea that it is more for technique than for insight. Yes, Bale looks and sounds a great deal like Dick Cheney, but as to Cheney the man, he is not quite there.
As much praise as Amy Adams is getting for her Lynne Cheney, I can't get behind it. Adams is a tremendous talent, but her Lady MacCheney act felt a little too easy, the idea of the more pushy Second Lady plotting to gain power making one question what she saw in the drunken lout.
Here is where Vice also flounders. The 'Lady MacCheney' quips is not there for my own amusement. At one point, Vice has Lynne and Dick reciting their plot in Shakespearean tones right after the surprisingly smug screenplay via voiceover tells us we can't just create a Shakespearean-like soliloquy about whether Cheney would accept the Vice Presidential nomination.
We get strange efforts to play things more as comedy that should be embarrassing, such as when the camera freezes on Dubya with food hanging on his mouth or faux closing credits. There's the lecturing about how most of us are too busy being entertained to care about the 'unitary executive theory'. There's the comparison to Galacticus, the 'unnecessary censoring' at Cheney's secretive energy commission meeting and the Sideshow Bob-type music when Cheney enters a room.
Perhaps the strangest turn is when the film touches on Lynne's mother's death. Besides the shock of it played badly by Adams, we get the vague suggestion that Lynne's mother was murdered by Lynne's father. What this has to do with the evil Antonin Scalia plotting decades before he was a Supreme Court Justice to enhance Cheney's Cardinal Richelieu routine one never knows, and McKay leaves it dangling there.
Dangling is an apt term given how fixated the film is on Cheney's fishing. Pity he couldn't name the film Angler (Cheney's Secret Service codename and the title of a biography).
In retrospect, the Kurt-as-narrator/organ donor bit might be stranger than the "Lynne Cheney's father 'may have' murdered Lynne Cheney's mother" bit. Why McKay went this route I can't fathom a guess.
Vice has no sympathy for its devil. It's too scattershot and slightly smug to be insightful or clever, two things it wants to be. Vice has no grip on its subject.
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