Off The Shelf: Vice
Adam McKay has always been one to watch. His transition from an inspiring bro-comedy director to the creator of an Oscar winning educational, political dramedy has been astounding to observe and grow with. From the second The Big Short ended, I was eager to see his next move. Sticking with the latter of his skill set, McKay has followed up with Vice, a political satire with a dash of lunacy and frenetic drama. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Vice to have nearly the same level of appeal as McKay’s previous works.
Vice follows the story of Dick Chaney, the famed enigmatic political mastermind, so to speak, behind the Bush administration. Of course, by the movie’s own admission in the opening title card, liberties had to be taken. The lines between historical accuracy and fiction are blurred, with the approach aiming to use its self awareness to its advantage in order to separate itself from your typical biopic. From the jump, McKay guarantees a polarizing experience, knowing full well his political leanings will influence the story. I only mention this to acknowledge that certain biases exist. Some audiences will appreciate them while others won’t, but in terms of objective criticism (if such a thing exists), I believe it bares no weight on my review of the film. What does, however, is McKay’s incessant need to make his film chaotic to avoid it being boring.
Vice utilizes an ‘objective’ narrator, title cards, and even voiceover from the inner monologue of Chaney himself. It has several sequences of entirely satirical circumstances, poking meta textual fun at the real life events. If you ever wanted to watch Chaney and his wife spontaneously bust into Macbethian soliloquy’s, you can find it in Vice. If you ever wanted to see an entire sequence of fake final credits, you can find it in Vice. And hell, if you want to see Christian Bale stare straight into the lens of the camera and talk directly to the audience in a way that would make you wish House of Cards had been remade and recast, then you will get that in Vice. The point I’m making is that McKay utilizes a lot, and I mean A LOT, of storytelling devices to keep his film new and entertaining, but it doesn’t mean it makes his film better. I’d argue it makes it worse.
The frenetic pace established early in Vice has no identity. The aforementioned opening title card hints at a comedic opening, but it takes nearly 20 minutes for another joke to land. Why? Because Vice can’t decide whether it wants to be a straight political satire or a dramatic character study. The occasional display of satirical showmanship detracts from the credibility of the storytelling. McKay’s previous work, The Big Short, played its hand similarly. In fact, it’s fingerprints are all over Vice. The difference is that The Big Short wisely separated it’s self referential moments from the story at work. It used those meta conversations to propel and strengthen the core narrative. Vice can’t separate the two, and as a result the audience can’t either.
Perhaps my biggest contention with the film is that by its end, I don’t really understand Chaney. Dick Chaney is intimidating and calculated, but he’s constantly being resorted to a figure as opposed to a character. I never get to watch him think because I’m busy being told by the narrator that Chaney is thinking. Despite him dominating the screen time, I don’t exactly know much about him beyond what he’s done according to the film. As far as I can tell, the moments and decisions that propel Chaney in this film are little more than a strong desire for power.
Rarely do characters ever sit and have a straight conversation because McKay is constantly playing with the frame, throwing images at it to see what sticks. The timeline is another point of contention. There is a flippancy to which Vice works with Chaney’s past. At any given point, we are constantly being tossed from one period in his political career to another. Sometimes, McKay finds life and significance in this choice. For example, Chaney looking upon the Oval Office after being elected Vice President juxtaposed with a memory of Chaney getting his first ever office, essentially a desk and walls and no windows. Other times, the story changes timeline with no discernible rhyme or reason and detracts from the storytelling and momentum of whatever previous scene came before it.
My contentions with Vice aside, this isn’t a film void of impressive features. It should come as no surprise that Christian Bale is immersive and utterly brilliant. Not only is it a role with intense focus on the nuance of Chaney’s mannerisms to capture his persona, Bale also finds plenty of opportunities to pursue the character’s wants and desires with little more than a glance. This is a performance that completely elevated the character beneath it. With Bale at the helm, Chaney becomes almost appealing, despite being a villain for much of the film. This may be the most intimidating presence Bale has ever portrayed, and I’m including Bruce Wayne in that hot take. Generally, I avoid performance bashing in my reviews, because actors are so often front facing and have such little to do with the larger picture, so all I’ll add is this: The other performers do relatively well, but Bale is undoubtedly the highlight. For all that I have to say against McKay’s frantic display, he does make impressive storytelling choices. Tethering themes of fishing and heartlessness into the greater narrative takes a bold, ambitious mastermind. The handheld camera work adds to the story, creating an atmosphere of intimacy for a character that can seem so ‘larger than life’.
The most important thing to note is that despite all my gripes, Vice still managed to keep me entertained. I enjoyed Vice more than the rating I’m giving it, and while I can’t argue that my enjoyment makes it better, I can argue that it might still be worth your time. Maybe. But Christian Bale is definitely worth your time.