“Vice,” about VP Dick Cheney (it’s not a biopic, it’s a Dick-pic), was written and directed by Adam McKay, who made the similarly themed “The Big Short.” McKay is better known, though, as an “SNL” writer who became Will Ferrell’s chief collaborator, directing him in “Anchorman” (and its sequel), “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers,” and “The Other Guys.” “Vice” shows both sides of McKay’s personality: the outspoken liberal, as well as the guy whose heart is still at “Saturday Night Live.”
You see the latter influence in “Vice” in the way McKay is so concerned about making everyone look the part. Christian Bale got fat, wore a lot of makeup, and does a creditable Dick Cheney impersonation … but he never seems like anything other than Christian Bale in a Dick Cheney costume. Sam Rockwell, who bears a passing resemblance to George W. Bush and could have played him perfectly well without cosmetic assistance, is given a pointy prosthetic nose, a reflection of the “SNL” mentality of the last 30 years or so, where the most important element of a celebrity impersonation is getting the look right. That works fine for a comedy sketch, but not if you’re trying to portray fully developed characters.
Which, let’s be honest, isn’t what McKay is trying to do. “Vice” is often hilarious and inventive in its depiction of Cheney’s rise from drunken Yale dropout to Machiavellian puppet-master/war criminal. Like “The Big Short,” it has fourth-wall-breaking flights of fancy, including one scene where Cheney and his equally power-hungry wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), lapse into mock-Shakespearean dialogue a la “Macbeth.” But amused outrage is all McKay can offer. He has no insight into Cheney’s personality beyond the unsurprising fact that he genuinely loves his family, and no views on America’s post-9/11 actions beyond the familiar, factual ones. Very little in “Vice” is news to anyone who paid attention over the last 20 years, nor is it synthesized into anything more than surface-level entertainment — which is only a problem insofar as McKay thinks he’s doing more than that.
Narrated by Jesse Plemons as a young man whose connection to Cheney I won’t spoil for you (it will make you roll your eyes), “Vice” begins with the strident tone of a Michael Moore film, the kind where even people who agree with the general message say, “Hey, buddy, take it down a notch.” We bounce back and forth between Cheney’s early days, toadying for up-and-coming warmonger Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), and his vice-presidency, which he pursued because he knew Bush was an empty vessel who would let him handle the hard stuff (foreign policy, domestic policy, etc.). There’s an unintentionally absurd moment when 27-year-old Cheney first becomes a congressional intern and is played by the same 44-year-old Bale as the 2000s Cheney, reminding me of the joke in “Walk Hard” where 14-year-old Dewey Cox is played by John C. Reilly.
It’s fascinating to see Lynne Cheney play such a pivotal role in her husband’s life. She campaigns for him in 1978 while he recovers from a heart attack, doing more with her pleasant, personable demeanor to get him elected to the House of Representatives than he could have done his own grumpy self. It is Lynne who chews him out for being a sorry drunk — early in the film, in what would typically be the third-act turning point — and inspires him to sober up. “I won’t ever disappoint you again,” he says. The dark irony is that he doesn’t: Every despicable thing he does thereafter pleases her immensely. His story is really hers, too.
Another nice touch: At the end of “Anchorman,” Steve Carell’s “mentally retarded” character, Brick Tamland, is said to have later become “one of the top advisers to the Bush White House” — and now here’s Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld. That’s probably the entire reason he was cast, though he does a serviceable job in the role (under a ton of makeup, of course, lest we not believe that he’s really playing that character).
This review sounds negative, and the movie is smug and shallow, but I did enjoy it. It’s just frustrating that McKay used his considerable comedic talents to address a topic about which he had no particular point of view beyond “Wow, what a load this guy was, eh?” He’s all fired up with no ways to channel his anger beyond the obvious, unhelpful ones — good for a few laughs and nothing more, just like “SNL” usually is.
B- (2 hrs., 10 min.; )