Although writer/director Adam McKay has managed to keep the fires of his hatred for Dick Cheney stoked a full decade after the former vice president left office, rather than serving as a constructive muse, this hatred is so blinding, so smug, so superior, McKay ends up revealing more about himself than his subject.
McKay had $60 million to work with and plenty of time to study Cheney. Rather than use those resources to explain what made Cheney tick, McKay chooses instead to hurl rocks at all of the bullet points on Cheney’s Wikipedia page.
Vice has no depth or insight. The choppy, scattered story rolls out like a series of marginal-to-bad Saturday Night Live/Funny or Die skits. McKay was a longtime writer at the former and a co-founder of the latter, and boy does it show.
McKay’s Cheney (Christian Bale) has no core, does not believe in anything, is not even a Republican. According to Vice, Cheney chose to join the GOP because Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) said a few cynical words to a group of congressional interns.
From there, the one thing animating Cheney is something called the Unitary Executive Theory (UET), which basically says that whatever the president of the United States does is legal because he is the president.
In fact, Vice assures and reassures us that Cheney believes in nothing (literally nothing) other than the UET, but McKay cannot explain why. For example, after an hour or so of presenting Cheney as power hungry, when the opportunity finally arises to run for president, Mr. Power Hungry chickens out based on one bad poll. And his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who is supposed to be the true power behind the snarl, agrees, and they happily retire from politics.
If that is not baffling enough, after Cheney comes out of retirement to become vice president under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), he puts the UET to work, but only to protect the country from terrorists via the War on Terror — all of which McKay rages against in that same tired way Michael Moore did more than a decade ago.
But again, this makes no sense. Why would someone seeking power for the sake of power use that power to protect the country from terror, as opposed to setting the table to succeed Bush in 2008, or to crush the Democrat party?
This is what I mean by a really bad House of Cards episode. As weak as the Netflix series became in its later seasons (let’s forget season six ever happened), we at least understood what motivated Frank Underwood — his quest to obtain and hold onto power.
Even Bond villains have a reason to be, a goal to make the world “a better place” through some heinous act. Cheney’s reason to be is never explained.
According to McKay, Cheney’s decades-long obsession to fulfill his destiny through the UET was all about being able to drop bombs and water board a handful of terrorists. To what end? It’s like watching the kid in Christmas Story deliberately destroy his Red Ryder BB gun after scheming for months to get his hands on it.
And it all ends with McKay blaming Cheney for everything wrong in the world, including the California wildfires, ISIS, and Trump — again in that tired Michael Moore style.
Vice is nowhere near as awful as W., Oliver Stone’s disastrous George W. Bush biopic, but at the very least, Stone tried to understand and explain his subject. All McKay wants to do is make his rich Hollywood friends laugh, and not just at Cheney, but the stupid American people who allowed him to become vice president.
McKay has always had a smug problem. This is what undermined his comedies with Will Ferrell, what most undermines Vice, and why he wears a scarf in public. McKay despises anyone not enlightened enough to share his beliefs and is even more disgusted with those who enjoy life rather than obsess over politics, those more interested in the next Fast & Furious movie than they are in using Twitter to own the Republicans.
After The Big Short, McKay’s successful turn to serious movie-making, I had high hopes for Vice, that it would be something closer to Stone’s underrated Nixon. Unfortunately, McKay uses the irreverent formula that made The Big Short so memorable to “own” Cheney, and the results are alternately ham-handed (fishing lures and heart removals as metaphors), hollow (it’s a movie filled with impersonations, not characters), and laughably dishonest.
McKay blames Cheney for leaking Valerie Plame’s name when an exhaustive investigation proved that was not true. He even blames Cheney for coming up with the term “Climate Change” because it sounds less alarming than “Global Warming” — an audacious lie when we all know the left made the change after Jesus made it snow every time Al Gore made a speech.
Ultimately, the experience of watching Vice is like watching two hours of Jimmy Kimmel monologues — a bitterly angry lecture disguised as entertainment, a relentless Thanksgiving hectoring from an uncle only interested in signaling his own superiority.
Vice is never boring. There are enough pinwheels, hula hoops, and party poppers to hold your interest. It’s just that after a while it all becomes tiresome and reveals itself to be an endless series of hollow talking points.
At least the Fast & Furious movies are about something, are about the importance of family and working together. Other than justifying the scarf, Vice isn’t about anything.