VICE (2018, Adam McKay)
Funny and depressing in equal measure, VICE is McKay’s entertaining but less successful follow-up to THE BIG SHORT (and, by extension, THE OTHER GUYS) in his quest to destroy-by-satire the powerful white capitalists eroding the country bit by bit. There’s a healthy amount of Trump rage here too, with Lynne Cheney’s stump speech (while her husband is laid up with his first of five heart attacks) essentially promising to drain the swamp and eliminate the immigrants. (McKay also clumsily cuts in Reagan’s first use of “Make America great again” to make the obvious connection). He keeps the tone caustically funny and ups the ante on the Margot-Robbie-in-the-bathtub style info-dumps, which are hit and miss but almost always viscerally energetic in a way that builds momentum and cooks up fury.
And in the first half, Cheney is developed as a shockingly three-dimensional monster, an oxymoron of a character that has you understanding his humanity while decrying his demonic ascent — and that’s all thanks to Bale’s sensational work. Like Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn before him, Bale’s Cheney is one of those biopic turns that so far exceeds the (albeit incredibly accurate) mimicry that marks a superficial SNL impersonation and turns into a real-live performance of depth, movement, and growth (though in this case rather than a Denzel-in-MALCOLM X self-actualization, his heart literally blackens as he moves further towards rapacious ghoul). Adams does equally astute work as well, further separating Bale and herself from the cosmetic, softball impressions Steve Carell (Rummy) and Sam Rockwell (Dubya) are up to.
In the final third, however, the movie loses steam as its focus gets away from Cheney’s driving motivation (that began when Rumsfeld laughed when he questioned what the party “believes”) and becomes a this-happened-then-this-happened rehashing of the 9/11-WMDs-Iraq-Saddam fiasco of the Bush presidency. McKay is preaching more to the choir than ever in this section, right when we don’t need reminders — we need a narrative. Still, he ends his screed with two uppercuts: a fourth-wall-breaking soliloquy that implicates the audience, then a misanthropic mid-credits assault bluntly separating American masses into two equally reprehensible groups: MAGA-types attacking The Libs, and head-in-the-sand sheep escaping into pop culture dreck. His characterization is simplistic and reductive, but I can’t help but sympathize with his lack of answers or positivity, because when it feels like the bad guys won (or, more accurately, we are the bad guys now), why bother pretending there’s a silver lining?