Adam McKay isn’t afraid to take a big swing. As the director of some of the best comedies of the 21st century including Anchorman, The Other Guys and Step Brothers, McKay is used to taking big directorial chances, usually for comedic effect. Anchorman featured a star studded brawl between newsmen. The Other Guys saw Derek Jeter, playing himself, get shot by Mark Wahlberg’s character before the world series. Even in his “serious turn” for 2015’s Oscar winning comedic housing market drama, The Big Short, McKay broke the fourth wall by having various celebrities break down the more complicated financial elements of the plot. So it’s no surprise that McKay’s latest Vice, a biopic of vice president Dick Cheney, doesn’t play it safe. And while not all of McKay’s swings connect, the result is a thoroughly interesting and entertaining, if flawed, movie.
Vice shows Cheney, played impeccably by Christian Bale, rise from a line worker in Wyoming to one of the most powerful and influential American vice presidents in history. Early on the movie shows Cheney’s DWI arrest as a turning point in Cheney’s life– a moment that prompted his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), to threaten leaving him if he didn’t get his life together. This desire to please and impress Lynne is what brings Dick to Washington where he starts working for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and moving up the Washington food chain– eventually serving as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. Then, after a stint as CEO of Halliburton during the Clinton administration, Cheney reaches the high office of Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell.)
If that seems like a lot its because it is. There is a ton going on in this movie and it skips vast portions of Cheney’s life. Almost none of his tenure as CEO of Halliburton is covered and much of his time as Bush’s VP feels rushed. Telling a story that spans over 40 years is difficult but McKay further complicates it with his ambitious, cutaway heavy style. That’s not to say that none of McKay’s directorial quirks work. The false ending that occurs about halfway through the movie is hilarious and genuinely unique moment and seeing Dick and Lynne Cheney suddenly recite Shakespeare has to be seen to be believed. However many of McKay’s directorial flairs end up complicating an already busy story and one, involving the reveal of a narrator is down right eye roll inducing. While this busyness is interesting, it also makes for a rather muddled story.
What holds the film together is the tremendous cast. The ensemble turns in all around great performances led by Christian Bale as Cheney. Bale, who has once again gained weight beyond recognition to play older Cheney, disappears into the role. He’s downright transfixing, not only because of his physical transformation, but because of his ability to command the screen without doing much at all. The strength of his performance gives the movie leeway to wander a little bit because whatever muddled plot points the movie is presenting, Bale’s commitment is so stunning it keeps the viewer engaged. Amy Adams’ performance as Lynne is also stunning, as she continually pushes Dick and his political ambitions further.
Steve Carell delightfully chews scenery as Donald Rumsfeld while Sam Rockwell’s George W. is charmingly buffoonish and ultimately underused. The cast is rounded out with solid performances in the margins from Alison Pill, Justin Kirk and Tyler Perry.
In politically charged times like the ones we are living through, a movie like Vice is going to get a lot of attention regardless, and seems crafted to get as much attention as possible. However when the movie tries to do more than entertain it falls short. Ultimately as muddled and busy as it is, Vice is entertaining and engaging enough to be enjoyable and worth seeing for Bale’s stunning performance alone.