After The Big Short, it felt like Adam McKay was ready to take on the world. Who else could follow up Step Brothers and The Other Guys with a Serious Film that deserved all the praise and cash it raked in? His next drama was going to be a true event; couple that enthusiasm with one of the all-time great trailers and the hype for Vice was appropriately deafening.
Alas, the newly christened auteur seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. While Christian Bale is as phenomenal as ever and brief moments are within arm’s reach of brilliance, Vice as a whole never comes close to its lofty expectations.
From about-the-start to not-yet-dead, we follow Dick Cheney (Bale) as he goes from Yale washout and Wyoming drunk to arguably the most powerful man in the world. The big catalyst for this rise is his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who doesn’t consistently raise a fuss but does make it very clear that she wants a husband who matters. Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) is Cheney’s mentor and tour guide through the corridors of power in Washington, DC; once Cheney realizes what a guy like him can accomplish in a city like that, there’s no going back. Lynne’s desires become his own, and we’re off to the races.
What made The Big Short so special is how it depicted a complicated topic via a very human story and then sprinkled in some Hollywood pizzazz to lighten the mood. There’s surprisingly little of that here; Naomi Watts shows up with no fanfare as a generic newscaster to relay historical exposition, and Alfred Molina appears as a waiter offering Cheney and his friends a series of highly illegal political strategies that they all embrace. But those appearances feel more awkward than clever; when you go 45 minutes without anything funny happening, celebrity cameos and Shakespearean soliloquies may not land as expected.
When it comes to Cheney, McKay aims to humanize him in a similar fashion, only with less satisfying results. Bale ends up doing most of the heavy lifting; physical transformation notwithstanding, he depicts a very willing participant in awful activities who also can’t quite grasp what he’s striving for. We’ve seen Adams occupy a similar role in The Master, and she remains terrific at small-but-powerful moments of overbearingness. Otherwise, Carell’s Rumsfeld is an exposition machine and a bit of a caricature; Sam Rockwell does a great small-scale George W. Bush but is barely around to bust it out; and Tyler Perry’s Colin Powell has roughly five minutes of relevance. It’s the Dick Cheney show, through and through.
It’s very complicated to try and present both sides of this famous man—loving patriarch and ruthless politician slash war criminal—while also emphasizing the negative impact that conservatives and doublespeakers like pollster Frank Luntz have had on America and the planet. Even if you agree with McKay’s overall worldview—and I very much do—it doesn’t need to be outlined in every scene. It’s a slowdown and a detriment to the storytelling process, and I wish the writer-director had gone one way or the other with it. Demonize Cheney and find very dark comedy in the horrors he’s unleashed, or try to tell it straight; the middle ground he chooses benefits no one.
There’s also a reason most biopics stick to an event or maybe a month in a person’s life; it’s nearly impossible to condense years and years into 120 minutes. It’s an easy criticism to level: if Cheney is as important as the director thinks, how can you fit all of him into a little over two hours? The short answer is, you can’t. Vice feels like McKay needed to make a Cheney documentary but also wanted people to see it; the result is overflowing with detail and never particularly brilliant at blending everything together.
With a movie like this, it’s hard to tell if the final product is truly blah or if the hype was just too massive. But at the end of the day, most films would kill for the buildup Vice got; the hard part is paying it off.