Writer-Director Adam McKay, who has struck comedic gold with classic Will Ferrell films such as “Anchorman”, “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights”. Recently elevated his game and branched himself out with the A-list actor ensemble “The Big Short” in 2015, which won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. McKay returns with his spiritual brother to “The Big Short”, the Oliver Stone Lite absurdist biopic production of the backstabbing, front-stabbing and ruthlessly ambitious Dick Cheney in “Vice”, (originally titled “BackSeat”). Bale nails it as the dick VP who looks like Cheney, talks like Cheney, walks like Cheney and well he is basically Cheney.
McKay brings his biting wit but unlike his screenplay for “The Big Short”, “Vice’s” script has its ups and downs. McKay brings the first laugh within seconds of the film giving us an opening title card that reads, “The following is a true story. Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history. But we did our f*cking best”. For a film that assures us they did their best, I can safely say the cast held that promise, as everyone in the A-list cast shines in their own way. Giving the most accomplished performance of his career and of this year is the tall, chiseled-cheekboned and lean, Brit Christian Bale who expertly captures the look, the mannerisms and the speech patterns of the short, balding, over-weight American politician, business exec and master manipulator.
McKay and producers Brad Pitt and Will Ferrell, presents us with an overview of Dick Cheney’s, life over 50 years. Bale is dedicated to mimicking every last tic. This is not a film people will turn to if they are going to want to sympathize with Dick Cheney. This is a film people will turn to in order to understand why so many people hate him so much. As long as we’ve known Christian Bale, he is an enormously talented method actor who jumps at the opportunity to transform himself, in the sake of the performance. Whether he’s dropping an alarmingly dangerous amount of weight (his film “The Machinist”) or beefing up to muscular lengths (for “The Dark Knight Trilogy”) or perfecting a dialect or disappearing under wigs and facial hair and prosthetics (for “American Hustle”) he’ll do whatever it takes to become the character. For “Vice” Christian Bale gained 45 pounds, shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows and exercised to thicken his neck for his role. Bale has said he achieved his hefty physique for the film by eating a lot of pies.
All the performances here are impressive. Sam Rockwell is a hoot and creates a shockingly realistic take on President George W. Bush. Although his performance is amusing, it’s not a well defined character. Christian Bale was actually originally set to play George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W” in 2008, before dropping out of the movie and being replaced by Josh Brolin. While Steve Carrell’s Donald Rumsfeld is also an entertaining portrayal, but he is portrayed as a cartoonish jerk. Amy Adams gives a great screen performance as a generically cold hearted Lynne Cheney. Everyone looks spot on as their real life personas including LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice (who I thought it really was the real Condoleezza) and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell. This is some of the best and most realistic make-up effects you will find on the big screen this year. Certainly puts Aquaman to shame, who resorts to visual effects done by crayons. The authenticity of Bush, Cheney and the rest is undeniably marvelous.
“Vice” begins when Cheney was a Yale student hardly getting by with D’s and F’s and thinking more of what his next drink will be then his assignment. Within a decade of Cheney’s hard drinking days, Cheney is in Washington, D.C., hitching his political wagon to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). He maneuvers his way into becoming White House Chief of Staff in the Ford administration; a six time congressman for Wyoming and Secretary of Defense for most of President George H.W. Bush’s term before leaving politics to become chairman and CEO of Halliburton. “Vice” tracks these developments and Cheney’s return to the political arena as George W. Bush’s veep in Adam McKay’s free ranging, tone shifting, darkly satirical, time hopping hit and miss 2 hour SNL sketch.
Adam McKay goes right for the heart and finds Dick Cheney has none. McKay doubles down on his fancy and stylized storytelling devices he employed in “The Big Short”. In my favorite sequence of the film about halfway through the movie, he even indulges in an alternative universe version of Cheney’s story that has him retiring as a wealthy businessman and enjoying a quiet, controversy free life filled with fishing and family. Then McKay employs a genius piece of comedy to the scene, that I shall not spoil for you. Even Cheney’s multiple heart attacks are played mostly for laughs, including Cheney’s low key way of announcing to the room there’s a problem and he needs to go to the hospital. It’s as if he was a little child who just spilled grape juice on his parents white carpet and is afraid to tell them.
While Cheney had no problem sending thousands of troops to die in Iraq because it suits his agenda, but yet he doesn’t have the strength to keep a promise to his lesbian daughter Mary (Alison Pill) not to publicly oppose same-sex marriage. McKay drops the ball in his script in a plot that shows, Cheney’s connection to a mysterious narrator (“Game Night’s” Jesse Plemons) that is an unnecessary twist. The tonal shifts are certainly both the film’s blessing and its curse. “Vice” is a wall to wall pummeling of Cheney. I’m not sure that “Vice” will shed any new light on the Cheney story. It places him in a spotlight that changes tones but is almost never flattering.
GRADE: ★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★