Calleri column

Christian Bale as vice-president Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush strategize in a scene from “Vice,” the new comic biography from director Adam McKay.

With “Vice,” writer-director Adam McKay continues his boys’ club concept of filmmaking.

His comic ideas worked quite well starting in 2004 with “Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy,” a little less well, but still effective, in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby,” and least well in “Step Brothers,” “The Other Guys,” and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”

McKay’s smirking male buffoons bottomed out with the scattershot “The Big Short” from 2015, a movie I genuinely loathe. While watching it, I thought the walls were closing in, and I was getting the cinematic equivalent of the bends.

McKay doesn’t like former vice-president Dick Cheney, who served two terms under President George W. Bush.

“Vice” reveals that McKay has learned nothing from the downward slope of his creativity. He can dislike anybody he wants, and he can make a movie about any subject under the sun, but if he’s going to go after a prominent figure important in recent history, one who’s still alive, no less, then he must generate his comedy from facts almost anyone can find. McKay plays fast and loose with the facts in order to explain his subject’s surprising rise to power.

History hasn’t begun to analyze Cheney’s life as a decision-making government player. McKay seems to want to alter impending perceptions; however, a nemesis called the truth has a habit of getting in the way of the story he’s trying to tell.

In 1963, a 22-year old Cheney repeatedly drives recklessly drunk through Wyoming’s wide open spaces. He’s a jerk who cares little about the beauty of his home state. Expelled from Yale, he’s returned home to work for the power company. His career prospects are virtually nonexistent. Is this really funny? How is it satirical?

Cheney is played at all stages of his life (he’s now 77) by a superb Christian Bale, whose appearance is elevated by excellent prosthetics.

We jump to September 11, 2001. As violence and fear are roiling the United States, the Secret Service herds vice-president Cheney into a bunker. During the bleak nightmare that is 9/11, Cheney tells Bush not to return to Washington.

Even momentary power is an aphrodisiac.

Cheney became Bush’s running-mate after overseeing the selection committee. He chose himself as the candidate for vice-president.

We jump again to a different part of Cheney’s life, as we will jump back and forth often during a movie that endlessly zigs and zags and refuses to give the audience a moment to collect its thoughts. McKay doesn’t want anybody thinking about what’s false, what’s missing, and what’s weird.

You’re only supposed to consider this: How did Cheney, a humorless and wealthy corporate drudge with few original ideas, but possessing a strong ability to attach himself to people willing to delegate authority, become the most powerful vice-president in American history? Unfortunately, McKay doesn’t offer a believable explanation.

One strange moment occurs about an hour into the 132-minute film. Up to this point, the shallow movie follows a mostly traditional biographical arc, which isn’t exactly McKay’s goal.

At 48-minutes, “Vice” literally ends. If you go, you’ll see how. A different “Vice” then begins, one more in the director’s wheelhouse. We leave the biography and are rammed straight into McKay’s own Cheney myth-making.

The audience watches breathlessly revealed references to the political equivalent of the black arts. We get Cheney the manipulator. Cheney the waterboarding supporter. Cheney the war machine.

Bush, his advisors, and cabinet are steamrolled by an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-or-nothing Cheney. This is the only fascinating aspect of “Vice.” Cheney’s personality is hardly what you’d call magnetic. He’s an overweight Machiavelli in an ill-fitting suit.

He know what he wants, and he’s able to push what he thinks, such as: the American military will be welcomed in Iraq as conquering heroes.

Cheney’s supportive wife Lynne (a very good Amy Adams) is the cutthroat woman behind her husband’s throne. McKay’s secretive Cheney is king of his realm and seems to own access to the Oval Office. Lynne behaves so forcibly that she might as well be Lady Macbeth.

Dick and Lynne may have a soft spot in their hearts for their lesbian daughter Mary, who is a bed-rock gay conservative. However, when the time comes to throw Mary under the bus, her parents rev up the engine.

McKay’s desire is to attack the politics of self-interest. He falters because he’s not as solid a satirist as he thinks he is, or as he should be, if he wants to be known as an artist capable of subverting the establishment. His background is in sketch comedy, including “Saturday Night Live.”

The director is gung-ho to reveal skeletons in the Republican closet (hypocrisy, duplicity). However, comedy is supposed to make you laugh. Nothing is all that funny even when one of the characters breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to moviegoers. You want to shout: Get on with it.

Other performances include Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as President Bush 43. Rumsfeld is a preppie double talker and Bush is acted as if he’s a naive and easily fooled rube. Carell and Rockwell have played these kinds of characters before, and better.

McKay tries hard to be humorous, but what he delivers is mostly glib. “Vice” is superficial failed satire.

   

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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