There were possibly some fine performances on the set of Vice, Adam McKay’s hyperactive wiki survey of the life of Dick Cheney, but we see only trace elements of them in this restless, distractible film. Bulked up by makeup and prosthetics, scowling and rumbling with that quiet smugness that suggests ultimate power, Christian Bale seems, in the glimpses we get of him, to have captured the essence of Cheney-ness. He looks and sounds so much like the former vice president that at the film’s end, when most based-on-a-real-person movies show us footage of the actual person, I couldn’t tell which Cheney I was regarding.
Amy Adams, meanwhile, remains recognizable after her transformation into Lynne Cheney, her flinty satiric spirit shining through the bobbed wigs and body padding. Her Lynne is a tough-as-nails political pragmatist who becomes head of the National Endowment of the Humanities just two decades after chewing out her shit-heel drunk Wyoming lineman husband for bar fighting. But I can’t say, beyond that, what or who she is, exactly, or what she believes in or aspires to, because McKay, skittish as a cat sleeping by a highway, cuts away almost every time she starts to speak.
The writer-director shared an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Big Short, his 2010 explainer-comedy about Wall Street malfeasance in the economic crash of 2008. And he seems to have taken as the lesson of that success that audiences prefer in a feature infodump sketch comedy explicating recent history rather than compelling dramatizations of it. Further encouraging him, apparently, is the intense secrecy of the Cheneys, a power couple who understood the value of not inviting media scrutiny — and seemed content, during the 2000s, with Dick’s image — to liberals and coastal snobs! — as the dark lord of George W. Bush’s administration. McKay is one of those liberals, of course, so pointedly dedicated to the facts, that he doesn’t dare say, with his film, Here’s what I think Dick Cheney was like. Instead, it’s, I dunno, what do you think Dick Cheney might have been like?
So, for a joke, he has Adams and Bale scheme out whether Dick should become George W. Bush’s running mate in (not bad!) Shakespearean iambic — after a narrator (Jesse Plemons) and some onscreen text acknowledge that nobody has any idea how the couple arrived at the choice. Then, after that, he stages a more plausible scene of middle-aged Midwestern marital decision making: They go to bed without really talking about anything. McKay can’t decide whether his subjects are the Macbeths or some sitcom couple. And even after directing six previous features (including both Anchorman films and the wildly funny Step Brothers and The Other Guys), he has demonstrated little mastery of the possibilities within those extremes. Don’t look to Vice for psychology or even a sense of presence; McKay uses the Cheneys’ grim unknowability as an excuse not to bother going for either. Not one moment here resembles anything like life as any human has ever lived it.
That’s not to say that I’m craving an incisive drama about the man who snarled, “So?” to Lesley Stahl when asked about the costs in human lives of his (pointless) Iraq War. Who cares about that monster’s soul? But why cast Bale and Adams in a film that’s not going to cut deep into character? And why ask us to stew for more than two hours in a theater watching someone we’re probably not interested in seeing get reduced to a caricature? To fill that time, to let us know how much he knows, McKay spazzes out. A young Cheney, looking Fred Flinstonian in his first years in Washington, mentions with warmth the “impish” smile of Richard Nixon, and McKay cuts to a photo of Nixon smiling, as if we can’t summon up the ghastly visage ourselves. The film leaps about feverishly in time and tone; McKay sets Bale’s dead-serious portrayal of Cheney awkwardly up against Steve Carell’s impersonation of Donald Rumsfeld as an Anchorman dipshit; facing the challenge of summing up Bush-era atrocities like “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation,” he has a fancy-pants waiter reading definitions off a menu while Cheney and Co. sit at their table salivating; as Cheney manipulates a callow Bush (Sam Rockwell), Vice cuts repeatedly to footage of an angler catching a fat, dumb fish. McKay twice in the film swipes at Americans who don’t follow politics closely: First, to illustrate complacent stupidity, he cuts to young women dancing at a rave; and later, to drive the point home, he tasks an actress with spacily proclaiming the next Fast & Furious movie will be “lit” — as if the true problem with American life is the escapes these young women have chosen from its persistent injustice.
That dim view of audience intelligence stands as this clamorous, annoying film’s animating impulse: McKay, a former head writer at Saturday Night Live, is attempting to explain this country to itself through entertainment so hopped-up and overbearing that this country might actually watch it. I admire his efforts to invent new forms to communicate. Occasionally, there’s a legit laugh — Rockwell’s loosey-goosey W. is so good that McKay actually keeps the camera on him long enough for us to savor the performance. And there’s alarming truth in the arguments Vice makes about Dick Cheney, the seizure of executive power and the outsourcing of our foreign and energy policy to energy companies. But the film plays like a parody of what the Cheneys think liberals think of the Cheneys, an editorial cartoon that shouts in your face for much too long. At one point, just like during the actual Bush years, I looked at the horror before me and gasped, “How can we only be up to 2003?”