I stopped making box-office predictions for movies long ago, when I realized I suck at them. However, I’m making a bold one for Vice: No matter how many awards nominations this film picks up this season, it will earn next to no money at the box office. The reasons for this have little to do with the film itself. Left-wingers’ loathing for Dick Cheney is still strong enough that they won’t want to spend 133 minutes in a theater with him, and the few right-wingers who still believe in Cheney’s discredited brand of neoconservatism will rightly think of this movie as a hit job that depicts him as a heartless bastard who cares only about power. Guess what, though? They’ll all be missing out, because this movie has some solid stuff to recommend it.
The story picks up in the early 1960s with Richard Cheney (Christian Bale) as a drunken layabout in Wyoming who might spend the rest of his life as such if his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) didn’t tell him that she was meant to marry a somebody, and she’ll leave him if he continues to be a nobody. Spurred on, he straightens up his act, finds an entry into the state’s Republican party, and winds up in Washington as a Congressional intern to an Illinois representative named Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, so perfectly cast that you just want to cry). The story of Cheney’s rise to power is told by an onscreen narrator (Jesse Plemons), a Steelers fan whose connection to the narrative is only revealed near the end.
Director Adam McKay’s work has been steadily growing more political in recent years, and I’m afraid it hasn’t been good for him. Sure, The Big Short got him a Best Picture Oscar nomination, but even that film had a hard time balancing out its acerbic observations about the economy with its fourth-wall breaking celebrity asides. This one is considerably more ham-handed, chastising us for watching reality TV while the world burns down and ending with a focus group discussing the film and a fistfight breaking out between a MAGA hat-wearing conservative and a condescending liberal. This wants to be a romp through our nation’s disastrous recent history, but it can’t balance the hijinks with the repeated scenes of Cheney shanking the people around him, including Rumsfeld, Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), and his own gay daughter (Alison Pill).
That said, there are some undeniably funny bits in here, like a closing-credit sequence that lands in the middle of the film, symbolizing the happy ending that Cheney could have enjoyed if stoogelike presidential hopeful George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) hadn’t called on him to be his running mate. (Now I’m hearing talk of a musical number that got cut. It should have been left in, and I want to see it on the DVD.) The movie also has the most amazing performance of Christian Bale’s career, as he disappears under a mountain of gained weight and prosthetics. Imitating Cheney’s smarmy monotonous speech patterns is relatively easy, but Bale also gets inside the man’s reptile brain (of course Cheney’s going to consult with his personal lawyer in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) and carries off the final scene when Cheney turns to the camera and tells us to piss off for condemning him when we voted for him twice. Perhaps the thing Vice needed most is another 20 years or so for all of us to gain perspective on how much damage he and his administration caused the country. Even so, its acting and comic bits are good to have now.
Starring Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Written and directed by Adam McKay. Rated R.