From the man who brought us “The Big Short” comes “Vice,” a movie a lot like “The Big Short” that comes up a little short.
The concept of “Vice” is that former Vice President Dick Cheney, convinced that he could never be elected president, set up a shadow presidency while serving under (but really over) George W. Bush, and that his tactics, including focus groups, doublespeak and cheerleading cable TV hosts, paved the way for the current administration.
Writer/director Adam McKay begins with Cheney’s arrest for drunken driving at age 22, then cuts to him taking command of a situation room right after the 9/11 bombings and continues to skip back and forth in time, suggesting connections between Cheney’s youthful missteps and his later career.
Perhaps taking its cue from the title character, it’s a smug, mean-spirited movie that kept reminding me of Michael Moore’s style, bombarding us with animation, vintage movie clips, newsreels and other material in a way that feels so assaultive that, even if you’re inclined to agree with its themes, you rebel against their presentation.
“Vice” careens from essentially realistic depictions of the Cheneys at home, which acknowledge that Dick is a loving father, to wayward satire, including a scene in which a restaurant server offers Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld a list of specials that includes torture and high-level corruption.
On its own, that scene might work — a lot of scenes in “Vice” might — but McKay hasn’t found a way to edit these episodes into the fabric of the movie. Instead, the narrative is awkwardly smushed together by the almost nonstop yammering of a mysterious Everyman narrator (Jesse Plemons).
One promising thread that gets lost is that if Cheney was Bush the Younger’s shadow president, wife Lynne Cheney may have been her husband’s shadow prez, a kind of Lady MacCheney. Until she fades out of the movie, Amy Adams is spectacular as the profane, bullying Lynne who, before she and Dick are married, tells the “big, fat, piss-soaked zero” that he has to do better or she’ll dump him.
Adams must cope with a lot of expository pillow talk along the lines of, “I know George is up next, but, after that, who knows?” But she makes that awkwardness part of her performance, convincing us that the Cheneys’ marriage is as much corporate merger as love match.
The one genuinely moving scene in “Vice” owes its power to the subtle grace of Adams and Christian Bale, who has physically transformed himself to resemble the paunchy, seemingly emotionless Cheney. Post-vice presidency, daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) is running for the Senate and asks their permission to reverse a family agreement not to oppose marriage equality. (The Cheneys’ other daughter, Mary, is a lesbian.) The parents’ silent, reluctant nods — first Dick’s, then Lynne’s — convey a humanity the rest of the movie denies them, with its cartoony close-ups of Dick’s pukey lips, Lynne struggling to figure out how to make Kraft mac and cheese and Dick gargling.
I suspect the problem with “Vice” is that, while filmmakers may not need to love the subject of a film, it’s very difficult to spend all that time depicting someone they hate. McKay acknowledges that he’s working from a peculiar position — toward the end of the film, a character decries the liberal agenda of the very movie he’s in — but it’s only in the final scene of “Vice” that we get a hint as to why McKay has so much trouble shaping this into a coherent cinematic argument.
As the movie concludes, Cheney turns to the camera and addresses moviegoers, saying, “You chose me.” Maybe Cheney, the “me” in that sentence, isn’t the real object of McKay’s anger. Maybe the “you” is what McKay should have made this movie about.