If nothing else, Vice deserves praise for having one of the best trailers in recent memory. Beginning with a low-key exchange between an instantly recognizable Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Cheney (Christian Bale) set to the opening strains of The Killers’ swagger anthem “The Man,” the song and trailer quickly build to an expertly synchronized crescendo. The combination of audio and visuals whet the appetite the way all good trailers do, showing just enough to get the audience excited but never revealing too much. It’s a masterclass in hype-building, and whichever anonymous editor stitched it together should be proud.
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, the finished product can’t live up to its lean, mean, two-minute preview. Vice, despite boasting considerable talent on both sides of the camera, turns out to be quite middling. And by ‘middling’ I don’t mean mediocre; I mean that the movie’s quality shifts from great, to downright awful, to most everything in between, depending on the given moment.
Though it begins with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer about the veracity of its screenplay, Vice’s opening scenes unfold as a generally straightforward biopic, giving us snippets of Cheney’s early life, from his short-lived college stint to his job as a lineman. When his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) demands that he get his act together, the movie starts in earnest, following Cheney’s rise from lowly White House intern, to Wyoming representative, to Vice President. It’s a fascinating story, and one worth telling. It’s too bad, then, that the filmmakers feel the need to drown it in gimmickry.
Vice is more or less a companion piece to McKay’s earlier effort The Big Short, a breezy, buzzy account of the 2008 financial crisis. That movie’s gimmicks – celebrity cameos, fourth-wall breaking, etc. – served its narrative well because they were a creative way to communicate the broad strokes of the finance world to a primarily-uninformed audience. But here, they feel indulgent and intrusive, especially considering that most of their points could be advanced with a normal dramatic scene. It doesn’t help that several of them are cringeworthy attempts at humor, with certain gags rivaling Family Guy’s worst offenders in their stubborn refusal to end. The nadir of the film, for example, is an extended conversation between Lynne and Dick comprised of faux-Shakespearean dialogue. Bale and Adams give it their best shot, but the bit just doesn’t work, and it goes on for a painfully long time.
But despite their best efforts, these distractions can’t sink Vice, thanks to an otherwise-solid screenplay and the committed performances of its actors. Carell is affably slimy as Donald Rumsfeld, Adams does a fine Lady Macbeth as Cheney’s wife, and Sam Rockwell makes an excellent George W. Bush, refusing to let his performance descend into caricature. But the movie unquestionably belongs to Bale, who fully, eerily inhabits the lead role. His leading turn is Vice’s purest virtue, nailing all of Dick Cheney’s mannerisms and speech patterns while bringing a charisma to the role all his own.
It’s Bale’s transcendent work that sees the movie through its low points, so it should come as no surprise that the movie’s last fifteen minutes – from which he is largely absent – are its worst. Here, Vice lurches into an overcooked mess of an ending (or two, or three) that forgets what the movie is about and pushes forth a barrage of loaded images, from refugees to Trump rallies to California wildfires, while not-so-subtly implying that Cheney is responsible for them all. These points aren’t completely invalid, but they’re made with such disregard for nuance that they become impossible to take seriously, and the accompanying visual metaphor – employed with all the precision of a sledgehammer – doesn’t help. The final insult is a mid-credits scene that displays, quite literally, how little the movie thinks of its audience. As if that wasn’t clear already.