Review: 'Vice' wields a mighty sword

Director Adam McKay made a comedy about Dick Cheney. How'd he do that?

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Christian Bale in "Vice."

An uproarious comedy about a decidedly unfunny subject, "Vice" has bite, smarts and a definite point of view, and it uses its sense of humor like a flamethrower. 

Director Adam McKay, the "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers" auteur who made sense out of the mortgage crisis and reinvented himself as a conscious filmmaker with 2015's "The Big Short," takes on an even taller order with this story about former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cheney, we're reminded in a prologue, is one of the most secretive leaders in history. It's not like McKay had access to him in prepping for the film, but in piecing together what he could from books and public records to make sense of the former Veep, "we did our (bleeping) best," we're told up front. 

And yee-haw, "Vice" is off to the races.

This wild rodeo is steered by Christian Bale, who packed on some 40 pounds to play Cheney, and he mimics his facial tics — the way his bottom jaw and lower lip sag to the side like they've fallen asleep — perfectly. It's not a performance, it's a transformation. 

Bale becomes Cheney, so fully inhabiting him — both physically and psychologically — that it's uncanny. If he's not nominated for an Oscar for the role it would be an outrage. 

We meet Cheney in Wyoming in 1963, when he's a hard-partying youngster who's kicked out of college. We then smash cut to 9/11, when Cheney is making executive decisions on behalf of the president to the surprise of everyone in the room. McKay then pulls back and connects the dots between those two periods, showing how Cheney rose to power, mostly from the shadows of Washington, and how he quietly helped shape history. 

Amy Adams plays Cheney's wife, Lynne, who whips Dick into shape when he's a young ne'er-do-well; McKay plays their marriage as a Shakespearean power alignment, at one point pausing and having them play act to each other in the vein of "Twelfth Night." 

It's one of several stylistic gimmicks McKay employs over the course of the film; Naomi Watts pops up frequently as a newscaster to help catch the audience up to speed, and Alfred Molina has a one-scene role as a waiter at a posh restaurant, explaining various Bush-era atrocities as items on an à la carte menu.

McKay's style gleefully breaks rules of narrative filmmaking, but is conversational enough that it brings the audience into the fold. It's not in any way conventional, and McKay, thankfully, has no interest in making a conventional film. 

Sam Rockwell is a hoot as a dimwitted-but-charming George W. Bush; Steve Carell is sharp and seedy as Donald Rumsfeld, one of Cheney's early allies in Washington. Tyler Perry is stunt-casted in a brief role as Colin Powell; his performance outlasts the gag. And Jesse Plemons narrates the film, playing a man whose connection to Cheney isn't spelled out until late in the film. 

There's no doubt "Vice" is biased politically, a fact which the film addresses late in a post-credits sequence. If you hadn't figured it out by then, that's on you, but McKay was never out to make a fair and balanced film. Instead it's a story of power, and the way history unfolds slowly, often when no one is paying attention. It's an ugly story of corruption, which wears a clown mask to make its horrors more palatable. And it works, both as a comedy and a scathing indictment of Cheney, whose one shred of humanity — his affection for his daughter Mary, played by Alison Pill — is also used as a political weapon.

Its deck is stacked, sure. but so are the decks of power in this country, and McKay is simply pointing out the truths that lie just beneath the surface. Yee-haw, indeed.




Rated R for language and some violent images

Running time: 132 minutes