Saturday Night Five (Out of Ten) - Vice
Adam McKay is schtick. Not that that’s a bad thing, but he is undeniably schtick. If his schtick works for you, it seems to really work. It seems to work so well, that you overlook deeply flawed movies in favor of the slick style that is admittedly unlike anyone else’s. Clever explanations of complex concepts, characters breaking the fourth wall and earnest efforts to convey historical weight through comedy are just a few of the hallmarks McKay’s filmography includes. In comedic movies, like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, McKay’s tastes seem spot-on. But his most recent movies, like The Big Short and Vice, cover historical events and it is hard to say how well the style is holding up.
The movie is broken up into two parts. The first part is mostly the Wikipedia biography of former Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney. He starts out as a college dropout hanging power lines in Wyoming. After one too many DUIs, the future Mrs. Cheney sits him down and tells him to get his life together. It is at that point he goes to work for Rep. Donald Rumsfeld in Washington and becomes enmeshed in Republican politics. From there, he works in multiple capacities, accumulating power and influence and making a name for himself. Eventually he consolidates that power into becoming CEO of Halliburton and making millions of dollars.
The second part of the film dives into the machinations that lead him to leave Halliburton and become the most power Vice President in history. Because so little is on the record about various decisions and conversations during that period, McKay employs creative license and imagines some of the most colorful variants of how things might have unfolded. The result is a story in which Dick Cheney is responsible for everything from the Iraq War to the nation’s current opioid crisis. McKay pulls no punches, so if measured subtlety is your thing, this ain’t that.
Christian Bale is unrecognizable. It would not be unreasonable to walk away thinking this was Dick Cheney playing Dick Cheney. His transformation and performance goes so far that it is undeniably impressive. But it just so happens that this unforgettable performance is in service of a wholly forgettable movie. Every few scenes there will be a mildly interesting idea or worthwhile gimmick, but for the most part, it is filled with scene after scene that isn’t as funny as they think it is.
The strangest thing about this overall effort is how little it is asking of every other character in the movie. Historical figures in their own right, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, George W. Bush, etc., all become extras. It gives the feeling of a weak Saturday Night Live bit, as Sam Rockwell does an impression of Will Ferrell doing an impression of George W. Bush. The end result feels cheap and siphons off the credibility the movie is trying to wield with its lofty messages.
This is what stupid people think smart sounds like. From the opening frames, even the movies narration gives it the feel of early Michael Moore—ham-handed and not nearly as smart as it wants you to believe. In the end, it is easy to walk away feeling like there is a toned down and slimmed down version of this story that is much more convincing. That perhaps if a few punches had been pulled, it would be easier to buy Cheney as a maniacal mastermind. Instead, you walk away feeling like Cheney’s failings were victories and the hyperbolic reaction to them are undue. This is likely to divide for as long as it is remembered, which, despite Bale’s best efforts, won’t be long.
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