Comedy is hard. Political comedy is harder. The awards are greater when you pull it off, but the pitfalls are deeper when you fail to get the tone right, the content intelligent enough, or the humor fully intact. Adam McKay’s Vice tries hard to strike this balance, but never quite succeeds despite the valiant efforts of all involved.
I adored McKay’s The Big Short. That film managed to tackle systematic economic turbulence with the appropriate level of acerbic nastiness. Its comedy came from the inherent preposterous underlining such a system that we tell ourselves is somehow in our collective best interest. Similar delusions are tackled in McKay’s Dick Cheney film, illuminating as best it can how a drunken Wyomingite took his taciturn and tenacious self into the center of global power.
As an exemplar of mimicry, Vice is unparalleled. Christian Bale does yet another of his transformations, a physical metamorphosis that we’ve long taken for granted from this particular actor. He has all the mannerisms down – the growl that almost sounds like a Batman snarl, with the accompanying Penguin-like sidemouth talking through gritted teeth. It’s not such a leap to see Cheney himself as a comic book villain, but Bale works exceptionally hard to infuse even this most conniving of characters with humanity.
Amy Adams shines yet again as the wife of a cult-like figure. A smarmy Donald Rumsfeld is portrayed by Steve Carell in a performance that reminds us how his supporting roles often are superior to the leads he’s given. The same can be said for Sam Rockwell, who applies the right amount of draw, grit and gormlessness as the ostensible if not actual President, George W. Bush.
For the first hour, the film nails the origin story, a rise to power that culminates in some 9/11-era shenanigans that continue to have political repercussions throughout the world. Anchored by Jesse Plemons’ narration, we’re drawn into Cheney’s rise, seeing him navigate decades of political machinations from Nixon onwards. It’s thrilling when it works, and the interplay between Bale and his fellow actors chewing upon this meaty tale is exceptional.
Unfortunately, when things get truly dark, and the Vice President’s actions veer far more toward the horrific than darkly comic, the film simply can’t sustain the tonal balance. All the character makeup can’t mask McKay’s anger, and this gets in the way of him creating something strategically effective. As drama, it’s dull. As comedy, it falters. This results in a last third that’s flat and uninspired, more litany than laser-focused on its target.
This is the hard bit – how does one find a way to show the simultaneous silliness of the situation along with the acknowledged horror? Where the magnitude of the financial crisis freed McKay to embrace gallows humor, he simply doesn’t have the skills or rhetorical courage to find a way in with images of 9/11 or Abu Ghraib. Dr. Strangelove is a miracle for this very reason. While one can certainly credit McKay with the best of intentions, Vice ends up faltering into a run-of-the-mill drama that does little to illuminate Cheney beyond the broad strokes.
This makes Vice one of the most disappointing films of the year, for the very fact that it’s also one of the most ambitious. Its failures are of attempting to execute something truly challenging. With the core of a tale ripe for examination in the current climate, it’s truly a missed opportunity. The performances are excellent and the script at times appropriately excoriating, but the end result is a film that never manages to fully embrace its darkest impulses, smoothing out its tonal shifts to something that feels as if it could have been, should have been much more than what we’re left with.