Film & TV

Dick Cheney Comedy Vice Is a Spastic Mess

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice (Annapurna Pictures)
The film is an angry upchuck.

What must the pitch meeting for Vice have been like? “It’s a little bit Veep, a little bit Zero Dark Thirty. We’ll give you satire, plus torture. It’s narrated by a dead guy. We’re going to treat multiple heart attacks as comedy gold.”

“Wait, are you saying this movie is as funny as a heart attack?”

“Heart attacks are hilarious!”

“You want how much to make this movie?

“Only $60 million.”

“Try Megan Ellison.”

And so it came to pass that after making many studio movies, Adam McKay — who (bless him) gave the world Anchorman and Talladega Nights and won an Oscar for co-writing The Big Short — trundled off to the independent producer Megan Ellison, a human Rube Goldberg contraption for transferring wealth from a rich guy in Silicon Valley (her dad Larry) to rich people in Hollywood (such as McKay and the all-star cast of Vice). Like a lot of other suckers — er, benefactors! — who have pried open the doors of Hollywood with a checkbook, Ellison is having no problems finding Beverly Hills charity cases to accept her largesse and has (consequently) already burned through $200 million of Dad’s money.

You’d think a $60 million budget for this one would buy some cinematic sizzle, or at least a few funny jokes, but despite a trailer promising a movie about a badass hip-hop antihero — “Vice, Vice, Babythe film is a spastic mess, an angry upchuck, with a script that’s all, “And then I found THIS on Daily Kos!” It fails on all grounds except one: Christian Bale really is something as Dick Cheney. He’s a bit too tall for the role, and he overdid the pie-eating to build himself a Winnie the Pooh tummy, but the way he rounds his shoulders and manages to talk while keeping his teeth pressed together is spot-on. Sam Rockwell, as George W. Bush, and Steve Carell, as Donald Rumsfeld, are major talents, but in this case each of them makes the mistake of doing broad sketch-comedy parody rather than disappearing into the part as Bale does. Then again, Bale has lots of practice playing this role. As I wrote upon the release of The Dark Knight, “Batman is Dick Cheney with hair.”

I wrote earlier about how Vice, which informs us that it’s a “true story” at the start and that it’s all about “facts” at the end, has a tenuous grasp on reality. This doesn’t have to be fatal: JFK, while it had little to do with the truth, was an entertaining frolic in the nutty brambles of Oliver Stone’s derangement. Vice, though, is equally lame whether it’s giggling at Cheney or denouncing him. Some bits come from McKay’s SNL brain (the Cheneys, in bed, use Shakespearean dialogue to get each other in a randy mood; the movie fake-ends, even rolling the credits, as we’re told that in the 1990s Cheney retired to private life and never played any part in the nation’s affairs again; there’s a goofy reference to Cheney as “Galactus, destroyer of planets”). Other scenes suggest McKay stays up too late taking the political blogs like heroin. He badgers, nay bludgeons, us with his hysteria about the “unitary executive theory”; this is a standard concept in constitutional law, but he frames it as a Cheney-made license for a president to do anything he wants and the source of the world’s ills. Vice also obsesses over conversations Cheney had with his lawyer and alleged abuses of various executive-branch paperwork requirements (“FACA,” etc.). I won’t bore you with the details, although McKay certainly does. There’s a late montage, as febrile and loony as a Michael Moore segment, blaming Cheney for everything from wildfires to Fox News Channel and (naturally) Donald Trump. When someone compares a dicey political situation to a stack of teacups, McKay cuts to . . . a tottering stack of teacups. Groan.

The movie is aimed solely at those who (still) hate Dick Cheney, but even that’s too broad a category: You’d have to hate Dick Cheney the way McKay does, obsessively, more than a decade after he left office, to the point where you’d thrill to a random implication that Cheney’s father-in-law murdered his mother-in-law (thus providing iniquity by association), to share the erotic charge McKay has for his material. McKay has simply lost control of himself when he plays Cheney’s heart attacks for laffs, or when he imagines the unfortunate man whose body provided the heart that was transplanted into Cheney’s chest continuing to talk from behind the grave so he can tell us that he, too, loathes Cheney. Blinded by his need to make sure you really, really get that Cheney is evil, McKay has characters just spell it out for you, as though putting it on a blackboard. Seeing young Dick jailed for a DUI isn’t enough: The narrator has to tell us, “In today’s parlance, they’d just call him a dirtbag.” Later: “He would be a dedicated and humble servant . . . TO POWER!” As Cheney seizes the moment in D.C., we hear “the plan is to take OVER the damn place!” Subsidiary characters just step right up and deliver clichés about what point they symbolize: In the 1960s, Lynne says, “I can’t run a company or be a mayor, that’s just the way the world is for a girl.”

I did get a chuckle out of McKay’s splenetic attacks on the Koch brothers (heroes!), how the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation “changed the way America thinks” (lovely!), the way Bush axed the estate tax by dubbing it “death tax” (smart!), and a shot of Ronald Reagan removing Jimmy Carter’s White House solar panels (saving the people money!). Also, the woman they got to play Condoleezza Rice looks exactly like her. But these are small comforts in a dismal movie. I wouldn’t want to be Megan Ellison when she brings the P&L statement for this effort to Dad.

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