By Eleanor Ringel Cater
About 20 minutes into “VICE,” the new bio-pic about former Vice President Dick Cheney, I scribbled this note:
“Geez, this guy must’ve sat through ‘The Big Short’ a dozen times.”
Close, but, as they used to say, no cigar.
This guy directed “The Big Short.”
Adam McKay’s 2015 movie about how the stock market came tumbling down and how a few guys still managed to beat the system was an utter delight — a jaunty, full-of-itself film that, perhaps, didn’t make Wall Street comprehensible, but had a darn good time trying — right down to bubble-icious Margot Robbie soaking in a tub and sipping champagne while she explains some complicated investment strategy.
“VICE” doesn’t have Robbie, but, like “The Big Short,” it does have Christian Bale, here buried in 40-plus pounds of extra weight and some very convincing prosthetics. And it has a very effective Amy Adams, slithering about Lady Macbeth-style as Lynne Cheney. And some pleasant-enough performances by Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, impersonating, respectively, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush.
But overall, although McKay and company do their best to show us the worst about Cheney – and there is a lot to show – the movie fails to come together. It’s scattershot and smug. For every flight of fancy that works – somewhere in the middle, McKay gives us a fabulous faux ending in which we’re told the Cheney’s stood by their lesbian daughter, Mary, retired from politics and raised Golden Retrievers in Virginia – there’s another that doesn’t just fall flat; it grates. Such as the utterly dumb bit where Bale and Adams start speaking to each other in fake Shakespearian monologues.
Despite the many flourishes, the picture itself is pretty straightforward. We first meet Cheney as a teen pulled over for DUI in 1963. He marries Lynne (“Don’t call me Lynney!”) who very much proves to be the woman behind the man. As a woman in the ‘60s she has no chance to go to an Ivy League school or become the CEO of a big corporation. “That’s just the way it is, girl,” says her hubby.
In 1968, the Cheneys go to Washington where he interns under Rumsfeld. Watergate happens. So do Ford and Carter. And Reagan and Clinton. And the first Bush, who appoints Cheney Secretary of Defense. Later, Halliburton hires him as CEO (with a $26 million Golden Parachute).
But Cheney’s real meal ticket – intro’d with a farcical off-screen clatter as he apparently bumps into a waiter at one of his Dad’s White House functions – is “W” who somehow convinces himself that making Cheney his VP was his idea, not Darth…I mean, Cheney’s.
That’s pretty much how Bale plays Cheney – with a monotone guttural growl that stops just short of “Luke, I am your father…”. There’s no insight here (in either the performance or the film), just a series of “SNL” skits, some more effective than others.
This is all the more frustrating because we know McKay is clever and that he’s capable of being funny in different keys (“Talladega Nights” couldn’t be less similar in tone than “The Big Short”). But nothing builds here. Instead, the movie simply grows more and more heavy-handed. And to paraphrase Oscar Wilde (I was a theatre major), “Snark is a delicate flower. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”
The thought occurs that “VICE” is for the kids, i.e., the under-30s who wouldn’t necessarily have any fully-formed opinions about this shadowy father figure who seemed to have the President’s ear (and total access to a safe place on 9/11). It invites that sort of uninformed giggling.
The most cogent point McKay makes – and I’m not sure it’s a laughing matter – is that Cheney totally re-defined the role of VP. When he first mentions to Lynne that he could have the job, she essentially sneers that it’s a nothing job: “He just sits around and waits for the President to die.”
Well, apparently, not this VP, who made sure he had offices in just about every building that had anything to do with the government. And, if the movie is to be believed, essentially functioned as de facto President the day the towers fell.
“VICE” has its facts straight, but it’s aim is, well, crooked. Or maybe just beside the point. Why does McKay want to be a third-rate Michael Moore when he could be a first-rate Adam McKay?
Maybe putting Margot Robbie back in that bubble bath would’ve helped.