1. The brilliant conceit of The Big Short was that the financial crisis was so absurd and ridiculous that it required a satirist, a trolling jester, to really make heads or tails of it. In the hands of Adam McKay, the subprime lending scandal that derailed our entire economy—the ramifications of which we’ll be dealing with for decades to come—became a concerto of comedic anger with stupid, venal people doing stupid, venal things just because they could and forcing the rest of us to deal with the consequences. It was complicated, but really quite simple: assholes being assholes. The wholly justified success of The Big Short has turned McKay, who probably should be bronzed for Step Brothers alone, into a more political filmmaker than he might have initially intended, and I’m afraid that’s for the worse in Vice, which attempts to do to the Bush administration and the Iraq war what he did to the financial crisis. This time, sad to say, the meta techniques he used to explain that madness are less innovative than they are gimmicks; exploring this well-trodden territory ultimately shows the limits of McKay’s approach. This time, we don’t need all the explainers and key-jangling for our attention, and stripped of those … McKay has nowhere else to go and very little else to say.
2. He has certainly cast the thing well, starting with the eponymous Vice himself, Dick Cheney, played by Christian Bale in full-on extreme physical transformation mode. (Honestly, there are scenes in which Bale’s middle-aged gut has more personality than anyone else in the frame.) We follow Cheney from his early days as a ne’er-do-well Wyoming lineman, whose DUI arrest spurs his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) to force him into a more respectable career and life, to his early days in the Nixon administration to ultimately serving as the Vice President for George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), where he would orchestrate the Iraq war and have more power than any Vice President before or since. The movie is narrated by a mysterious character played by Jesse Plemons, whose connection to the narrative isn’t made clear until late in the film, and we meet all the major characters of the time, from Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) to Colin Powell (Tyler Perry, amusingly). It’s the Dick Cheney story, but only slightly.
3. The movie isn’t really a biopic or a character study of Cheney. We learn a little bit about his dedication to his family, including his lesbian daughter, Mary (Alison Pill), but his journey has no real arc or lessons to be learned. Basically, once Lynne tells him to get his act together, he does, consistently falling upward into bigger and better positions until he’s ultimately angling himself into becoming essentially the most powerful person on the planet. This Dick Cheney is not particularly cunning, or charming, or even particularly savvy: He just keeps being in the right place at the right time, until he has so much sway that he ends up leading the United States into one of the most disastrous wars in American history. But what do we learn about Cheney here? McKay seems to have a great time subverting Cheney and making fun of all the people in his orbit, and there’s a scene with Rumsfeld that seems to imply Cheney is some sort of backstabber. But little in the movie up to that point has built that sort of case. McKay’s point seems to be that Cheney is sort of a Forrest Gump of American life, a guy who was in the right place at the right time just long enough to completely destroy the place when he had the chance. But again: I’m sort of just guessing?
4. A major part of the problem is that McKay doesn’t really trust his audience to just sit down for a second and watch the damned movie. Just when you’re starting to feel like you’re getting a sense of who Cheney is, McKay hops to some other you’re-still-with-me-right? distraction, whether it’s having a whole scene with the Cheneys randomly reciting MacBeth to each other to Naomi Watts as a Fox News anchor to one moment when the movie seems to end and roll credits. This was a nice touch in The Big Short; in a way, we did need Margot Robbie to pop up and explain some of this stuff to us. But we know the story of Cheney and the Iraq War well, if not from the news but from the dozens of movies about the topic. But McKay still hits all the same old points we’ve seen before, just with a technique that implies he doesn’t trust that he has our full attention. If he’s not going to delve into the personality of Cheney, and he’s not going to give us anything new … what exactly are we doing here?
5. Where The Big Short was bold and enlightening, this is just well-trodden ground, trod over once again in a fashion that feels decreasingly novel. It’s also worth noting that McKay is far more overtly political in this film than in that film, which had a point of view but one that came from more of a can you believe this shit? angle. Put it this way: There are many times in Vice in which McKay veers dangerously close to feeling like he’s making a Michael Moore film. I get it: I’m mad about Dick Cheney, too. But McKay has put together a terrific cast and stranded them in a movie that, all told, isn’t entirely sure where it’s going. McKay is a smart, talented guy, and his voice is needed, particularly on the topics that he’s most interested. But first he has to figure out precisely what he wants to say.