Adam McKay, widely known for his beloved comedies like Step Brothers, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Anchorman, decided he wanted to be more highly regarded in the awards-orientated circles of Hollywood when he made 2015’s The Big Short. An energetic exposé of the inner circles of the US Financial Market as its main players (including returning actors like Christian Bale and Steve Carell) took advantage of the housing crisis of 2008. Though I personally wasn’t as taken by the film, it earned wide acclaim and a vast amount of award nominations and wins, including the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. With Hollywood taking notice that this comedy director has a voice, Adam McKay turns his hand to a second piece of takedown cinema of one of the most vilified men in American political history. Why this man needed a takedown, well…I wish I could tell you. Let’s talk about Vice.
Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney, the former and most infamous Vice President of the United States, following his life from the early 1960s and his internship at the White House right through to his stint as Vice President, meticulously covering every base of his reign of terror. Vice features numerous highly controversial political figures such as Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush, and features a narrative framing device in the shape of the ever-charming Jesse Plemons.
In a bid to remain impartial, let’s talk about the good features Vice gave us. Christian Bale is, admittedly, very convincing as an awful human being. Amy Adams is reliably very good as Cheney’s vile wife. It has a compelling story by its very nature because this shit actually happened – so, it succeeds in its shock value.
Now that’s out of the way, Vice is a disaster. It’s a total, complete, and utter disaster. It made me question how this film ever got approval in the first place. My theory is its distributor, Annapurna Pictures, trusted McKay after his success with The Big Short and allowed him free reign. This is a film that has an atrocious script, incoherent editing, tonal shifts at the drop of a hat, needless footage of nature documentaries spliced into various scenes in a bid to seem artsy, and a generally arrogant condescension towards its audience.
If Adam McKay’s purpose was to create a piece of hateful cinema, he achieved it and then some. It’s (barely) a film that does justice to its main character by managing to be as egregiously awful as he is. Was this a creative choice? Does McKay actively want us to hate ourselves and feel personally responsible for the events that transpired in Cheney’s reign? Honestly, I’m veering towards yes. McKay wants us to feel guilty. He doesn’t accept responsibility, he’s just presenting us with the facts, but we’re to blame. We made Cheney powerful. We caused the Republican corruption. It’s as if McKay is asking “why didn’t we do anything sooner?” He gave us all the clues.
McKay makes a wild number of creative decisions here that don’t add up to anything that resembles coherence. The film begins in 2001 with 9/11, jumps back and fore between an important phone call in which Cheney usurps his President and Cheney’s life in 1963, presenting us with a key turning point in American political history by showing how much of a fuck-up Cheney is. This man becomes the most powerful man in America, the film pounds into our skulls. Look at this drunk, failing loser who becomes successful. This continues for what feels like an age, then the film jumps into its opening credits. If a film could give you clinically diagnosed whiplash, it’s this moment. The film has started. We’re into the shit of it all. Why disrupt the momentum with a needless credit sequence showing Cheney and Lynne (his wife’s) relationship?
Momentum, or lack thereof, becomes a major problem as the film progresses. It’s a just-over-2-hour film that feels like 6. Naturally, when you try to condense the life and times of an American Dick into 2 hours, a lot needs to be trimmed and rushed over in favour of a compelling narrative. Adam McKay throws a big old middle finger to that idea and tries to explain everything.
Much like its opening credits, its narrator – the nameless Jesse Plemons, who may be one of the most insulting representations of a real person I’ve ever seen – cuts in mid-conversation to explain what that conversation just meant, or what that one act mentioned was all about. It disrupts the flow. It feels more like a lecture than it is a film. It breaks one of the fundamental rules of storytelling – show, don’t tell. If your film needs to explain something directly to your audience so frequently, it means your script is terrible. It means it lacks the subtlety of visual storytelling, it lacks trust in its audience to follow along with the film. We don’t need our hand held through the story. Commit to your story, don’t talk down to us for 2 hours, don’t break the fourth wall time and time again to tell us “you’re too stupid, I’ll talk to you like you’re 5 years old.”
Let’s talk about the fourth wall. When done well and it serves a purpose, it can be incredibly effective. It can draw us into a film even further, it can alleviate moments of intensity, it can be hilarious. It has a multitude of uses to serve its story. Vice uses it as a storytelling crutch while simultaneously thinking it’s the cleverest film of all time by doing so. The Big Short skirted this line very closely but ultimately it just about worked because, let’s face it, who can say no to a bubble bathed Margot Robbie? In Vice, it doesn’t work. Here, it feigns intelligence by simply repeating exactly what was just said, often verbatim, just in a different format. At a dinner table in an egregious waste of Alfred Molina. Using Naomi Watts as a random News Anchor to repeat details we’ve already figured out ourselves just to drill it into our heads further. There’s a scene in which – and I’m not kidding – includes Bale and Adams reciting Shakespeare in lieu of just having a conversation because it’s…funny? Smart? These fourth wall breaks also include a meta, highly stupid mid-film closing credits sequence that believes it to be hilarious when in fact it’s plainly insulting that McKay thinks this joke of his is worth at least 5 minutes of your time.
What Vice fundamentally lacks is subtlety. One could argue that this is the kind of film that doesn’t need subtlety, but I’d say that’s what the film needed. It’s so ham-fisted in its execution that there’s no space for interpretation; this man is terrible, and you’re all terrible for letting it happen. It pounds the idea that Dick Cheney is a Bad Human Being so thoroughly into the ground that ultimately it’s completely pointless. Dick Cheney being awful isn’t a revelation. The inner machinations of his government are more of a revelation that will likely shock you, but that isn’t down to the film, that’s just down to historical fact. Vice feels like a biased Wikipedia article. Surface level exploration, offering nothing new to the conversation, all of which told in a condescending tone to criticise the public, with the film believing itself to be a necessary, important piece of cinema. It’s not. It’s abhorrent.
Vice is not only a missed opportunity to make a valuable statement about the current political state we’re in, it believes it’s made a valuable statement. If you want to watch a film with a valuable statement, watch Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman. Don’t watch this. Vice isn’t worth your time. The fact it is in the awards conversation at all – yes, even the acting nominations – feels like a continuous punch to the face in the form of Hollywood patting itself on its back by gleefully exclaiming “look how controversial we are! We’re sticking it to the man! Who cares that we are also the problem!”
Oh, there’s a mid-credits scene, by the way. And it manages to be the single most misguided scene in a film that is the very definition of misguided. It may be called Vice, but let’s call it what it actually is; vile.
Directed by: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry