Director Adam McKay never quite fits into the box that viewers try so adamantly to shove him into. After watching goofy, irreverent buddy comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy or Talladega Nights, it would be all too easy to toss him in with a whole host of faceless broad comedy filmmakers. But just beneath their kooky, manchild surface, there’s always been a signature voice flowing throughout his work, a wit and charm that have distinguished his films from the pack. It’s this popcorn auteurism that’s allowed McKay to successfully venture into more dramatic endeavors, such as Vice, his clever and biting indictment of Dick Cheney’s nefarious thirst for ambition and the grave misdeeds which were birthed as a result.
In many ways, Vice is a logical next step after The Big Short with McKay taking a look at a national tragedy in a manner that’s zippy and entertaining so that its lasting weight doesn’t feel immediate. Through an overflowing cocktail of humor and heart, the film is able to make profoundly complex ideas accessible to virtually any viewer. This is a horribly disheartening portrait of the depths of human greed, but it also packs some of 2018’s most side-splitting gags. It would be inaccurate to say the wildly contrasting tones are at all balanced, but that never seems to be the film’s intention. This is a truly angry piece of work and, as such, it makes tonal and logical leaps that often only make sense on an emotional level, which only seems fitting for a tale from which it is nearly impossible to divorce basic gut feelings.
Chaotic as Vice may be, it always feels like an original film. Just when audiences think they’ve figured out McKay’s rhythm, he will break the pattern for the sake of a shock or a laugh. Even when the film isn’t entirely successful, it never takes the easy way out, constantly striving for something greater than the norm. As a result, it’s consistently imaginative in ways that biopics almost never are. The use of collage is explored even further than in The Big Short – as we are shown quotes and clips from political leaders and advertisements and the TV shows that real, everyday Americans were watching instead of paying attention to the horrors around them – and the juxtaposition only serves to craft an airtight argument. This movie is propaganda, sure, but pretty much everything here can be traced back to provable facts. And it’s a welcome reminder that George W. Bush wasn’t always painting and giving Michelle Obama hugs on television. His administration is responsible for some of the egregious humanitarian atrocities in recent memory, and McKay wants to make sure the current wave of rampant cruelty hasn’t overshadowed them.
But this is, after all, a character study, and none of it falls into place without its awards-caliber performances. Sight unseen, Christian Bale wouldn’t be the first choice of many to be cast as Dick Cheney, but when he gives himself over to the role, it’s difficult to imagine the part going to anyone else. He mimics every facial tic, every mannerism, playing Cheney as the evil genius lurking in the shadows. He’s manipulative and calculating, and his utter barbarism goes far beyond a simple lack of empathy; he actually takes joy in screwing people over, even making jokes about the war crimes he’s committing. The film is littered with other commanding performances, none more so than Amy Adams, who, in one of the most affecting turns of her career, paints Lynne Cheney as a power-hungry, conniving Lady Macbeth.
Vice has an undeniable panache and determination as McKay swings for the fences with a brash tenacity that may very well turn audiences away from this film. But it is, first and foremost, a political satire, a form specifically designed to be divisive, specifically designed to provoke a visceral response. Vice is so much more than the easy gag it promised to be; it’s a challenging conversation piece that nimbly speculates about the intentions of one of U.S. history’s most sinister figures, and it refuses to ever settle for simple solutions.