Whatever the line between prestige HBO film and theatrical movie, “Vice” – an irreverent look at former Vice President Dick Cheney – doesn’t entirely bridge it. Buoyed by strong performances – including an unrecognizable Christian Bale and Amy Adams as Cheney and his wife Lynne – the movie ultimately seems too pleased with itself, bringing only marginal insight to its admittedly secretive antihero.
Bale will undoubtedly garner well-deserved accolades for the role – he’s already received a Golden Globe nomination, one of several for the film – not only approximating Cheney’s gravelly voice, but practically disappearing underneath the astonishing makeup.
Then again, the movie meticulously replicates all the Bush administration officials, including Cheney’s longtime confidant Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Colin Powell (Tyler Perry).
The main problem is that “Vice” seems to want to have it both ways – at times playing like a straightforward biography, at others, a broad and lacerating satire. Unlike its driven protagonist, the movie can’t seem to make up its mind as to precisely what it wants to be.
So while there are funny, irreverent bits, they can feel a bit jarring – or overly precious – when juxtaposed with more sober moments that exhibit Cheney’s contradictions, including his genuine partnership with his wife and acceptance of his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) when she comes out as a lesbian.
Perhaps foremost, “Vice” feels as if it’s spinning its wheels until Cheney gains that title, after Lynne seeks to dissuade him from being Bush’s running mate by reminding him that he has always said vice president is “a nothing job.” Informed by his belief in the Unitary Executive Theory – a rationale for expanding presidential powers – Cheney assumed a larger portfolio than other vice presidents, manipulating the cheerfully upbeat Bush into ceding authority to him.
That dynamic is best captured by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and their aftermath, and director Adam McKay isn’t subtle about accentuating the fallout from Cheney’s reaction or the collateral damage that ensued due to the tactics employed after that crisis.
Reunited with Bale and Carell, who he worked with on the splendid “The Big Short,” McKay knows his way around the nexus of ruthlessness and power, portraying both in the context of Cheney’s bare-knuckled approach to politics.
First, though, he goes back to 1963, when Lynne pressures a young, then-directionless Dick to clean up his act, eventually leading to his relationship with Rumsfeld, who schools him in the ways of Washington.
There’s much to admire spread throughout the film, from Bale and Adams’ central performances to a closing-credit sequence that overtly addresses the notion that this is just another anti-Republican screed from liberal Hollywood, likely to be dismissed by conservative detractors.
Still, most of the good choices are offset by a questionable one, including the device of having the whole movie framed by an omniscient narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose role only becomes clear near the end.
“Vice” thus feels like less than the sum of its parts – despite the outward trappings of a classy, impeccably cast exploration of Cheney’s guarded life and political career. It’s a character study of a man imbued with a guiding vision of his own greatness that, finally, yields a somewhat scattered, just-OK movie.
“Vice” premieres Dec. 25 in the US. It’s rated R.