Who would have thought that the director of such comedies as Anchorman, The Other Guys, and Step Brothers would rebrand himself so utterly? Adam McKay has remade himself as a maverick filmmaker who commands starry casts and bends film language to his will in order to expound on such dense topics as the 2008 financial crisis (with The Big Short, which was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director) and his follow up, the reverse-hagiography of Dick Cheney that is Vice.
2019 is one of the weirdest, and weakest Oscar years for ages, but the strangest trend (if two movies make a trend) is the confirmation of one-time goofy comedy directors’ ability to turn their careers into big-name Oscarbait. Between Vice director Adam McKay’s turn to more serious filmmaking (no ballsacks on drums in this movie), and a fucking Farrelly brother making an award-winning drama, I’m assuming Seth Rogen will be next to turn out a thoughtful Academy-wank drama and get showered with praise for his efforts.
Though Vice isn’t necessarily a proper drama – it’s full of laughs of the uncomfortable kind as McKay uses every bell and whistle in the comedic book to keep us interested, despite the fact that his fine group of actors could save him the trouble. I’ve been thinking of a short, sweet, and accurate way to sum up the viewing experience that is Vice and here’s what I came up with: Vice is what would happen if Sidney Lumet directed Natural Born Killers from a script by an on-form Aaron Sorkin. And believe me, it’s exactly as flawed as that sounds.
Despite all of his efforts, McKay isn’t the main attraction here – Christian Bale is. Bale is the type of actor who is attracted to such transformational roles as the one on show here, and he has the talent to ward off criticism of showmanship over actual skill. While his make-up and physique are incredible, it’s Bale’s mannerisms, his underplaying each situation, that gives us the glimpse inside last decade’s political bogeyman. We first meet Dick Cheney before the power and the horror when he was a drunk burnout who managed to bag a woman, his wife Lynne (played by the equally brilliant Amy Adams) who was clearly too good for a loser like him. McKay spends the first ten minutes of Vice before he so much as roll his credits setting up the confrontation between the couple that will inform the rest of the movie. Adams, who plays a similar role in The Master, gets another chance to play the powerful woman behind the man, a Lady Macbeth who can actually motivate her husband to become the secret king of American politics.
From here we are whisked through nearly four decades of political history as Dick becomes assistant to Donald Rumsfeld (a scene-stealing Steve Carrell), comes through Watergate unscathed, before being tossed out of the White House once Jimmy Carter takes office. After a stint back in the game under Ronald Regan, we finally get to the meat of the movie, as Cheney and his group of influencers, spies, and political button-men redefine the power held by the Vice President of the United States with Sam Rockwell’s George W Bush as a dim figure head. The performances from all involved are captivating, and the editing is brisk, spiky, and fully deserving of editor Hank Corwin’s recent Bafta win.
The only weak link might be McKay himself, as he casts the American people he’s trying to get the attention of as dopes who just let their democracy erode. It’s a case of both 20/20 hindsight and trying to give us a mirror to the problems affecting American politics today – a telling scene sees a focus group of average people being more concerned with pop culture than politics. Hey, Adam, didn’t you make three Will Ferrell comedies during the Bush administration?
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Bustle)