The Unwatchables — Vice


I was a fan of Adam McKay’s The Big Short. By any reasonable assessment, the film about the mortgage crisis the leveled the economy in the first decade of this century (based on a nonfiction rage-generator written by Michael Lewis) was the first attempt at crafting something substantial from the director of a set of broad comedies with Will Ferrell as the common denominator. Working from a screenplay co-credited to Charles Randolph, McKay effectively dramatized Lewis’s reporting and craftily interjected fourth-wall-toppling explanations of the arcane manipulations of financial tools as a more entertaining means to providing the audience the deep background required to make sense of it all.

Margot Robbie luxuriating in a bubblebath while detailing the chicanery of subprime mortgages became the emblem of McKay’s fidgety ingenuity. (Selena Gomez partnering with economist Richard H. Thaler to cut through the confusion of synthetic CDOs is a more inspired trick, but it lacks the secret weapon of implied soapy nudity.) If the narrative trickery is impressive in The Big Short, it’s only because it properly serves the greater story and the master thesis. The ratio of focused storytelling to crackerjack gimmickry is in properly alignment. McKay’s follow-up film, Vice, shows just how disastrous it is when the ratio is reversed.

In relaying the life story of Republican Grendel Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), McKay begins with a moronically faulty premise. He decides that Cheney’s secretive nature has made him fundamentally unknowable, as if the established facts of his life in and out of government service haven’t already been detailed and scrutinized thoroughly. McKay repeatedly presents information that has already cycled through countless news stories and magazine profiles as if he just pulled magical artifacts out of a secret tomb. The air of self-congratulation would be mere annoyance if McKay didn’t simultaneously frame these many moments in frantically edited, deconstructionist folderol. He shifts artlessly between fleeting conceits — heavy-handed fishing metaphors, lapses into Shakespearean dialogue — so certain that a complicated code is being cracked. Cheney and his cronies, though, wrote their poisoned manifestos in plain, guttural English.

Enamored with his own storytelling stunts, McKay doesn’t bother to probe the characters, to actually try to achieve the deeper understanding he purports to be after. Bale is uncanny in aping Cheney’s voice and mannerisms. It’s a fine impression rather than a developed performance, far closer to Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer than Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln. And he’s the best of a sorry crew. As Liz Cheney, Amy Adams is clipped, stern, and utterly void of the humanity that’s usually her strongest suit, Sam Rockwell is floundering in schtick as George W. Bush, and Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld as the reincarnation of Burgess Meredith’s the Penguin.

Vice is so ill-conceived and then poorly made that I grew angry over the very idea that McKay believed his film to be bold and illuminating. It fails in every conceivable way, including the most fundamental. It’s not even watchable.

I made it approximately two-thirds of the way through Vice.

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott

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