It’s always deliciously entertaining to watch a great actor plunge into a role with this much brio and lack of vanity. But once the parlor game has ended, the question lingers: that commitment and uncanny technical prowess has been deployed in the service of what, exactly? Written and directed by Adam McKay, “Vice” hews to roughly the same structure as “The Big Short,” McKay’s 2015 movie about the 2008 financial meltdown. Less a coherent narrative than a hyper-stylized illustrated lecture, that movie possessed the jittery, scattershot aesthetic overload of a live-action mood board, its putative protagonists being continually jostled aside for kaleidoscopic montages, satirical set pieces and cameo explainers by such actors as Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez.
“Vice” benefits from a more linear narrative, plotting the rise of Cheney from a misdirected young man in Wyoming to one of the most notorious gray eminences in American politics. But it has the same frenetic, absurdist energy that propelled “The Big Short,” and in this case the form feels even more queasily at odds with the content. McKay is clearly up to something in trying to invent a new cinematic language for interpreting our recent history, a grammar that combines the pedagogical earnestness of a TED Talk and the gonzo, boundary-breaking sensibility of music videos and his own comic website, “Funny or Die.” Although the filmmaker’s ambition is commendable, in this case the end result feels both busily overdetermined and bluntly simplistic.
As a central character, Cheney is undeniably rich. As “Vice” gets underway, he’s a classic American lost boy, drinking and carousing until his fiancee Lynne (a blonde-bewigged Amy Adams) reads him the riot act: Get your act together, son, or this marriage is over before it begins. Thus is introduced one of McKay’s most insistent thematic threads in “Vice,” which portrays Lynne Cheney not just as a smart, sharp-eyed author and historian in her own right, but as the schemingly ambitious Lady Macbeth behind her husband’s rise.
That ascent, “Vice” explains, began in earnest when Cheney was a congressional intern and met the man who would seal and accelerate his fate: Donald H. Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell with a notable physical resemblance to his character but also with a characteristic goofiness that’s distractingly off-key. Double-teaming throughout the Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations, Cheney and Rumsfeld perfect the dark arts of D.C. survival at its most cynically Darwinian. Asked at one point what they’re supposed to believe in, Rummy looks bemused, and then just laughs.
It’s not conservative ideals but the raw pursuit of power that drives Cheney in “Vice,” which centers on Cheney’s most far-reaching role, that of vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Consolidating his purviews with expert subtlety, the man who makes his nonpolitical living in the energy sector amasses unprecedented influence, affecting U.S. policy on war with Iraq, torture, domestic surveillance and a host of other issues we’re still living with. His moment of truth comes when he decides whether to sell out his own daughter Mary (Allison Pill) over the issue of same-sex marriage.
As with “The Big Short,” mileage will vary from viewer to viewer as to how surprising or entertaining “Vice” is, beyond the madcap flourishes of its own self-conscious style. Strip away the gimmicks, and what may seem exhilaratingly brash begins to look glib, opportunistic and relatively tame. (There’s no Selena Gomez in “Vice,” but Alfred Molina shows up as a waiter offering a menu of Constitutional gray areas for Cheney, Rumsfeld and their cohorts to chew up and spit out.) There aren’t any revelations or risky hypotheses proffered in “Vice,” just a conveniently parodic primer to remind opponents of the Bush administration why they opposed the Bush administration.
What makes “Vice” so frightening is how Cheney’s dismantling of norms like oversight and accountability obtained near-permanent purchase. Barack Obama took advantage of Cheney’s obsession with unified executive power, and Donald Trump, to no one’s surprise, is following suit. But the historical long game, with all its ambiguities and unforeseen consequences, isn’t as compelling to McKay as delivering as many kitschy, cartoonish parting shots as he can to someone who even today seems both pathologically self-serving and supremely indifferent to being liked. (Days after the death of George H.W. Bush, Chuck Todd asked Cheney to identify the best attributes shared by both Bush presidents, a powder-puff question Cheney batted away with his instant, reflexive response: “Well, they hired me.”)
Structurally, “Vice” is a mess, zigging here and zagging there, never knowing quite when to end, and when it finally does, leaving few penetrating or genuinely illuminating ideas to ponder. (That said, a memorable end credits sequence turns out to be one of the film’s finest moments.) As a Wiki-wacky burlesque, “Vice” never achieves the Shakespearean comprehension or catharsis to which it clearly aspires, just snarky self-amusement. The cipher-like eminence at the story’s center remains stubbornly in the grays. There’s so very much of this movie. Is that really all there is?
R. Opens at area theaters on Christmas Day. Contains coarse language and some violent images. 132 minutes.