The Pitch: After turning the United States housing bubble into an Oscar-winning comedy with 2015’s The Big Short, Adam McKay returns to do the same with another sin of the States, that being former Vice President Dick Cheney. Sure, we know the guy — some might even say he was our real President over George W. — but this movie gives you the big picture on the political demon. You’ll learn how he went from being a forgettable, drunken douchebag at Yale to one of the most unforgettable douchebags to ever take over Capitol Hill. Who do we got for the role? We got Bale.
American Psycho: Boy, do we ever. Once again, Christian Bale delivers another transformative role, blowing up into a baby beluga as Cheney, and even on a surface level, it’s truly a marvel unto itself. But everyone knows the Oscar winner can commit to these transformative roles — so does the Academy, who awarded him said Oscar in 2011 for David O. Russell’s The Fighter. Even still, this performance is on another level.
Bale’s dealing with an icon, and while it would have been so easy to just simply add the pounds and do a Penguin schtick, he doesn’t. He goes deeper, conjuring up the power-hungry spirit that has seemingly destroyed every molecule of Cheney’s body. It’s another level of disguise for the English actor, who draws upon the minutiae of this hunger: the way Cheney folds his hands like an open-faced sandwich, that shuffle of his that seems to stem less from any kind of injury and more from being lost in Machiavellian thoughts, and of course, those pauses. Those pauses that could cause an Armageddon.
It’s an unnerving thing to watch amidst all the laugh-out-loud moments, of which there are many, and like Cheney, Bale remains a silent and deadly shark swimming in these balmy waters. Even when he’s a young, hapless idiot, under the tutelage of a young and cutthroat Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), you always get the feeling that Bale is removed from the humor. He’s this enigmatic force all throughout the film, which winds up affording all the right kind of space to juxtapose him against for laughs. Needless to say, next year’s Best Actor award is Bale’s to lose, and it’d be stunning if he walks away empty-handed.
Who’s in the Cabinet? Amy Adams is equally fierce as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, who ostensibly serves as the fuel and origin story for Cheney’s coarse political backbone. She props him up, she keeps him going, and for a while, stays two steps ahead of him. Seeing how Cheney is a naturally stoic and oft-silent figure, Adams also serves as an essential foil, injecting the right kind of energy for McKay, who traditionally keeps each scene going at a steady pace between 75-90 mph.
Also incredible is Carell as Rumsfeld, who clearly saved his best for McKay this year. His arc is one of the more understated of the ensemble, going from a venomous python to a dusty husk, and he wrestles with just enough pathos to actually make you feel for him. No, seriously, when he’s sitting in an empty office deep within the White House, talking to his former apprentice as he waits for the guillotine, you have to keep pinching your arm and reminding yourself that he’s just as awful. That’s the power of Carell.
Surprisingly, it’s Sam Rockwell, hot off last year’s Oscar win, who struggles. As the bumbling moron George W. Bush, Rockwell goes all in on his ragdoll image, tumbling around like a half-empty bottle of whiskey in the back seat of a station wagon. Whether he’s behind the desk giving “orders” or slurping up Texas BBQ, he never amounts to more than a cartoon character, but his performance also speaks to the problems of the film at large, namely how McKay can’t quite keep things together by the end.
Stupid Is as Stupid Does: With The Big Short, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph went hog wild with regards to narrative. Looking back, the movie runs on an anarchic piece of screenwriting, but it all worked, if only for the fact that the two were able to boil down something as intensely complicated as the 2007-2008 financial crisis into something enjoyable and smart. More to the point, the film never came off as pandering, even despite having Margot Robbie and the late Anthony Bourdain breaking the fourth wall to explain things. It’s why they won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2016 Oscars.
McKay went into Vice solo and you get the feeling that he’s standing a little too much on ceremony. All the quirky zigs and zags of The Big Short are all over the place on his followup, and while some of it really works — including a hilarious gag involving faux end credits — he inevitably goes a tad too far. The problem is that, unlike The Big Short, he can’t seem to wrestle with the drama, and when Vice takes a more dramatic turn towards its manic third act, McKay’s preaching winds up feeling like Oliver Stone, Jr. All of those meta, tongue-in-cheek quirks start becoming self righteous and smug when they used to be clever and decisive. It’s a damn shame.
The Verdict: Having said that, Vice is still a remarkable feat for McKay, who continues to prove he’s one of the more integral voices working in comedy today. Because really, the movie works best when it’s having fun, and only starts to unravel when you get the sense that McKay is trying to appease those that may walk away saying, “Dude, there’s nothing funny about 9/11 and what Haliburton has done to this world.” So, it would have behooved him to let the satire speak for itself and leave the hand-slapping to those who walked away having actually read between the lines. Then again, as this movie beautifully paints, we are a stupid nation that often don’t know those lines even exist.