Review: Vice (2019) – Crime & Punishment

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Christian Bale in Vice

When The Big Short came out in 2015, people fell in love (myself included) with the satirical style that director Adam McKay brought to the subject material. Usually behind the camera on stoner comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, McKay stepped into the awards season light thanks to a new take on the financial crash in 2008. His follow-up, a look at the life of vice president Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) follows the same formula while getting one vital ingredient wrong, it forgets to tell a story.

Barely telling the story of Cheney’s rise from drunk college dropout to most powerful vice president of all time, Vice is supposed to be about Cheney, his relationship with wife Lynne (Amy Adams) and his two kids Mary (Allison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe). As he rises through the ranks of Washington D.C. power players he learns more and more about how to accumulate power and get away with it.

Much like The Big Short, Vice is full of 4th wall breaks and satire to fill the films bloated length and while the occasional punchline about Cheney’s bum ticker bring about a modicum of comedy there is little here that works. The Anchorman approach of throwing everything in and seeing what sticks seems to apply here. The sheer lunacy of Vice pushes the content further from satire towards the realms of farce and while some might contend that era of American politics was fantastical, this film still proclaims to be telling a story weighted in some semblance of truth. A scene that encourages us to laugh at the idea that torture and rendition is a tough sell and the finesse used to sell such a notion is laughable instead.

Hidden within the film is some terrific performances by Bale and especially Adams, who makes Lynne not just fun to watch but a powerhouse of a woman with just a few simple sentences. She takes advantage of being pigeonholed into the Lady Macbeth role McKay has assigned, more on that later, by playing her agenda like it is Dick’s idea and Adams is clearly having a blast doing it. Bale on the other hand isn’t given as much leeway to flex his muscles but select scenes he plays for keeps. The film’s final scene in particular, despite how superfluous it is to the film in general acts as Bale’s Oscar reel for the year.

Despite some apt performances by people wanting to make a quality picture, Vice still feels like derivative cinema in the end and ultimately it comes down to McKay and his vision for the film. Rarely does Vice feel like anything beyond a public service announcement, and a very one-sided one at that. Crafted to educate that masses to the horrors inflicted upon them, instead it manipulates by telling a story that mixes in hand-picked facts designed to spin a narrative, one that rarely even feels about Cheney or his life.

McKay is actively seeking out the controversy here instead of telling a natural biopic. One scene has Bale and Adams speaking lines from Shakespeare while plotting their next moves, further solidifying the Macbeth analogies. Instead of embracing the light touch and crafting a story that at least painted a picture of a man, McKay is finger-painting. The speaking truth to power dynamic he seeks feels more like a man looking for a fight, something that saps the fun out of the film almost instantly.

While it is hard to make Cheney out to be a republican hero, someone who wanted to help the people, Vice takes his villainy to moustache twirling levels of unbelievable. The only time you see people this ‘dastardly’ is in cartoons. Overall the disjointed editing makes this hard to follow, and showing how Dick made it from A to B seems almost secondary to any political point on display. In the end, it made Cheney out to be almost sympathetic, if only because it implied there isn’t a lick of truth here.

TSR

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