Adam McKay likes to show. And show. And show.
As he moves further from straight comedy and more toward a dark comedy examination of political America, McKay’s showy style becomes more apparent. In a way, it is more permissible to have a broad comedy film be brash and in-your-face. While such a style is not destined to fail in a more dramatic setting, it is harder to grapple with tone in that setting.
McKay’s The Big Short shows some signs of this tonal problem. Largely a depressing subject, the comedy flourishes in that retelling of the housing crisis don’t translate well. The non sequitur cutaways to celebrities are jarring and ineffective. What shines in that film are the performances, showing that the director understands the import of casting and allowing actors to play fully into the idiosyncrasies of their characters.
This same idea is front and center in Vice, McKay’s historical fiction account of Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise to power in the White House. Christian Bale embodies the snarling political shaker, taking on the gravelly speech and lumbering figure. And, in its own caricaturish way, it works. Bale’s portrayal is the keystone, and without him Vice would be an unmitigated disaster.
McKay often interrupts the biopic formula, perhaps as a way to make the story appear less conventional than it ultimately is. But these techniques do not mesh, making the film’s structure a wild west of uncontrolled ideas. Characters break the fourth wall, chief among them being an omniscient narrator (Jesse Plemons) who only tangentially fits into the narrative proper. Cutaways intercept and squash the flow of scenes. It’s all very frantic.
What results is a tonal whiplash of pitch black comedy. While one could forgive the frantic structure and focus on the comedy of fraught politics, it is still hard to enjoy the film outright. The objective of skewering the corruptness of the American political system is a valid one, but it is undertaken here to no clear discursive resolution. The mileage one gets out of reliving a ruthless man’s ruthlessness from the vantage point of a director whose disdain for said man is frankly apparent is limited.
It is funny to have a running gag about Cheney’s heart condition. But this is a pale addition in the rapid-fire mockery of the political process. The humor that rises to the top is largely independent of McKay’s larger aspirations. The bitterness by which he paints Cheney and the Bush administration leads to scenes that feel like sour reminiscing. This sourness is wrapped up in the clothing of a farcical romp, and the image that this conjures is hard to look at.
Vice is brisk but not breezy. It is well-acted but its characters are not well-drawn. And, most importantly, It intends to indict without carrying out a sentence. We are asked to revisit what McKay views as a very dark time for America in order to, what, remind us that what we are living now is equally dark? Is this merely a prequel to the Trump movie he will make in the coming decade?
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)