Chaos confused with flourish.
“How does a man go on to become who he is?” the narrator (Jesse Plemons) ponders in Vice. This could be asked of writer/director Adam McKay, the former maestro of the goofball comedy, well-practiced with the likes of Anchorman and Step Brothers. His entry into the serious arena with the Oscar-winning The Big Short was a biting, resounding success – he’s back, this time in the political sphere with Vice. If his previous effort was built upon annoyance, this is born from pure, unfiltered anger, creating an entertaining but frustrating viewing experience.
The film chronicles Dick Cheney’s (Christian Bale) quiet but catastrophic rise from useless alcoholic dropout, to humble government apprentice, to eventually, the most powerful US Vice President in history. A quote is shown to the viewers: “Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watched. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest… he strikes.” No other sentiment accurately sums up Cheney’s despicable, mesmerising manipulations, and it’s a lesson McKay is keen to teach to the audience.
We open with a mix-mash of snapshots from Cheney’s life. We see him pulled over for drunk driving, which then flashes forward to him as VP being rushed to safety as 9/11 unravels, and then cuts back to his girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife Lynne (Amy Adams) telling him he better buck up his ideas after a second stint in jail. It’s all very messy and an apt indicator of the feature to come which takes place in similarly scattershot fashion, like an unorganised butcher’s selection of tidbits and efforts to (de)humanise him. The Big Short was told relatively straight, with a healthy assistance of quirky fourth wall breaks from celebs. This time we have Plemons as a mystery, fictitious Iraq veteran, carrying the biopic along with steady doses of exposition. But aligned with his dialogue is often disorientating, aimless editing, stringing segments of the Cheney saga together with sledgehammer subtlety and finesse.
The rather overbearing narration doesn’t always flow; it’s not necessarily insulting to the audience, but the film’s reliance on Plemons feels like a result of not being quite sure how to effectively tell the story. McKay doesn’t have as firm a grip on the directing or writing front this time round, dropping distressing imagery and misplaced blots of humour like bombs from a B-52 all over the running time, with one particular Shakespearean segment stinking of smugness. In some regards Vice feels like a continuation of the filmmaker’s style, but there’s a little too much comfort and cockiness here and it’s no surprise the film is polarising critics and audiences.
The ensemble is fabulous, but there’s a distinct split. Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld is a sweary, nasty Republican – perhaps that’s an accurate portrayal of the man himself, but this performance feels like Michael Scott and Brick coming together after hours. Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush is an inspired bit of casting, but while his take is a hilarious impression, it exists more in the realms of gimmickry than transformation. And that right there is what separates Bale and Adams from the former; they become who they are. An Oscar is pretty much guaranteed (and deserved) for the Welshman, who has stripped ever fibre of his personal being and replaced them with the very essence of an intelligent monster. It’s a meaty role, one Bale plays with calculated vigour like the seasoned thespian he is; one brilliantly chilling moment sees him in a meeting about threats in Iraq. One of his staff say, “They claim to be peaceful now,” to which he replies, holding up a pastry: “I claim to be eating healthy.” They all share a laugh, but Bale’s small grin turns to deathly disregard without a breath. The wife role is often a write-off, but Adams commands the role with screen-stealing authority and authenticity, establishing a fascinating dynamic with her on-screen evil hubby.
One plot device that really strikes a mean giggle are Cheney’s heart-attacks, often signalling a lane-change in the screenplay. “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I think… yep, I think I should go to the hospital” – while this is clearly played up for some comedy, there’s a certain cathartic enjoyment in each stumble. Cinematographer Greig Fraser and composer Nicholas Britell are left fumbling, never managing to strike a visual or musical style that sticks as McKay zig-zags relentlessly through tonal dissaray. But in all its chaotic construction and explicit nihilism, it kind of works. The second half settles into the more disturbing meat of Cheney’s mad life, but not much food-for-thought is offered up by the end. It’s unlikely you’ll see a film soon that’s quite as depressing as Vice. But as the director’s opening text amusingly warns: “We did our fucking best.”
A product of flamboyant vitriol that inspires hatred, resentment and ultimately, despair.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm