“Vice” might be the worst film Adam McKay has ever made, and this is coming from someone who has seen “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”
The director’s fixation on powerful men played by Christian Bale in a wig continues from his previous feature, “The Big Short.” Here the brooding Welshman plays Dick Cheney, embodying the rotund vice president by gaining as much weight as he once lost for his role in “The Machinist.”
It’s astonishing that the film has garnered so much awards chatter, which betrays the fact that most journalists and academy members believe that good acting is directly correlated to extreme physical transformation. Though he draws each breath laboriously and emulates Cheney’s reptilian tongue-flicking, Christian Bale still sounds like Batman whispering angrily in a fat suit.
Bale doesn’t even deliver the best SNL-level impersonation in the film — that is Sam Rockwell’s finger-licking George W. Bush. Rockwell has always been good at playing feckless men who would rather do anything than think, though he arrives in this movie far too late to save it.
The first hour of “Vice” tracks Cheney’s ugly youth and marriage to his Lady Macbethian wife Lynne (Amy Adams, with a horrendous bob). She starts the film hissing that Dick is nothing but a “piss-soaked zero” in their early Casper, Wyoming days but ends it as an enormously wealthy woman with a vanity golden retriever-breeding business.
In tracking our hero’s rise, McKay uses sledgehammer subtlety, as when he intercuts shots of fly fishing into the meeting where Bush Jr. offers Dick the VP role. Cheney suggests he can “handle bureaucracy” for Dubya and this apparently includes reading intelligence briefings before POTUS and grabbing power even as he watches the World Trade Center towers collapse.
“Vice” suffers from a weak structure that frantically skips back and forth in time — there are, admittedly, a ton of unprosecuted war crimes to cover — making for an exhausting two hours and 15 minutes. (Most charitably, it could be said that the hyper-stuffed “Vice” resembles the speed of our current news cycle.)
The supporting cast of politicians is comprised of grinning dogs like Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Paul Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), and Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk). One exception is Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), who shamefacedly lies to Congress about the existence of WMDs in Iraq. But why are they all so lightly sketched?
A few more questions for the director:
Why do you need a narrator? Kurt (Jesse Plemons) does an average-man shtick — he was in Iraq, he works at a grocery store, he plays with his kids — but his connection to Cheney revealed only quite late in the film.
Why do you mix in archival footage? There are lengthy montages of Fox News clips from the early 2000s and then Naomi Watts playing a redundant Megyn Kelly-esque news anchor. There are sequences featuring the actors playing Cheney and Bush that try to look archival but match neither the other archival clips nor the rest of the film.
Why all the cheesy gambits? There is a mid-film credit roll, a scene in Shakespearean pentameter, and Alfred Molina as a waiter offering a menu of Patriot Act addendums — these are wholly unnecessary.
McKay’s climax makes a meal out of Cheney’s heart transplant — there’s literally just a gaping black hole in his chest! — but satire is much better done in other political films, like the recent gem “The Death of Stalin.” If nothing else, it seems McKay wanted to show us unchecked executive power, and the first steps toward American life in 2019. Cheney notes, “Wartime presidents are very popular.” And it’s often not so difficult to furnish a war.
‘Vice’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 2:12. Visit www.cinemawest.com.