Review: Vice

Review: Vice

by Alan Grant
article from Wednesday 30, January, 2019

I CAN’T IMAGINE what it must be like for former Vice-President of the United States, Dick Cheney, to sit down and watch Vice, the film by director Adam McKay that follows his life from when he dropped out of university to his retirement. If I were asked to sketch what I thought might be going through his mind, it would be a mixture of effrontery, irritation, indignity, and no small element of pride at being the subject of such a project. 

This mixture of reactions, if accurate, would be most suitable becauseVice is a film that evokes a range of different reactions in its audience and aims for a number of different goals… not necessarily to its benefit.

Much like its depiction of its main character, there’s quite a bit of conflict in Vice, both on screen and in terms of subtext. While we’re watching the most (in?)famous VP in modern American history clash with a raft of different people, we’re also treated to a film that seems to be at odds with itself – or perhaps is just confused about what it wants to be.

At times you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve stumbled into Michael Moore’s latest bin liner full of half-baked conspiracy theories, undergraduate level political insights, and Saturday morning cartoon level narrative, while during other scenes Vice plays like a serious, if overly flashy, biopic on an obscure satellite TV channel.

Worst of all is when Vice aims for straight up comedy – then it becomes a poor man’s Anchorman meets the lesser scenes from Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is particularly painful during a cringey post-credits sequence that takes what effort the film has gone to establish politics as a serious subject and blows it apart like a misidentified qual with a ham-handed attempt at South Park-style ‘everyone is an idiot for caring about stuff’ humour. It’s a real low point and legitimately undoes most of the work that the film does. It shouldn’t have made it past the rough edit, let alone the finished film.

It is when Vice lives up to its status as a black comedy, however, that it achieves its potential. This happens particularly in hilariously po-faced moments around Dick Cheney’s real-life heart condition and how it is has haunted his life. It doesn’t sound particularly funny but it is – you’re going to have to trust me on that.

There is also a lot to like about some aspects of Vice. The major cast is absolutely superb and Christian Bale in particular deserves all the credit that he has been receiving for bringing all the menace and shark-like patience that befits a good version of Iago to the role as well as having Dick Cheney’s voice and mannerisms down pat – especially considering that he’s doing it under what must be a debilitating level of cosmetics.

Also on top form is Steve Carrell who shows some impressive acting chops as a not always accurate but always watchable Donald Rumsfeld who adds some levity and warms to the piece. He’s ably supported in this by Eddie Marsan who hasn’t been this good in anything since Filth as Paul Wolfowitz.

Furthermore, any review of Vice that doesn’t reflect on how well Amy Adams brings the intelligence, ruthlessness, and single-minded ambition of Dick’s wife Lynne Cheney needs to revisit their opinion. She’s cold, icy, and serves as another great role for one of the best actors working today.

As if that were not enough, Sam Rockwell, about whom I had reservations, absolutely nails a side to former President George W. Bush that we’ve never seen before – playing him as a well-meaning, smart, fratboy rather than the usual, tired and clichéd, not to mention inaccurate and clueless, dope he’s often unfairly shown as.

There are other aspects of Vice to praise; the artistic direction is sumptuous and most of the camerawork is spot-on, but I can’t help but come back to how conflicted it feels and how each of these positives are cancelled out by a weakness – mostly in the execution; it’s more a case of poor assembly than it is about the individual parts.

What success it has in being a black comedy is killed by its attempt to do many things at once and succeeding at none of them in full. Its excellent character work is crippled by the fact that the film manages to be both too long and include scenes – like when George W. and Cheney are planning their next move at the former’s ranch – that feel rushed as well as some that feel totally out of place and extraneous.

Overall, one gets the impression that we may have an editor who wasn’t prepared to mirror the ruthlessness and decisiveness of their subject to a sufficient degree. It’s a shame, because there’s a great movie somewhere in Vice, it’s just covered in too much blubber to be anything other than good.

It’s difficult to make a recommendation for Vice outside of the usual ‘if you like this kind of thing it’ll give you it’ because of the avalanche of other stuff you’ll have to sit through before you get what you want. Political geeks will be frustrated by the occasional flights of fancy and fiction (including a brilliant fourth wall break towards the end) that it indulges in while regular cinemagoers will be bored by the excessive political detail and minutia. This is the problem with trying to please so many different audiences, as Vice tries to do, you’ll only really give a passable experience to most whereas, with a bit more focus, you could have given one group the film they’ll be talking about for years.

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