Wednesday 23 January 2019

Swinging Dick: "Vice"

The filmmaker liable to make the most striking contribution to social media's current #10YearChallenge would be Adam McKay. Ten years ago, McKay had just signed off on Step Brothers, the latest in his run of successful comedies; he appeared broadly content to mess around with Will Ferrell for the foreseeable future. A decade on, and he now seems to be positioning himself as a cure for all America's problems. Signs of that shift in attitude were first apparent towards the end of 2010's The Other Guys, a knockabout cop comedy that ran stats pertaining to white-collar crime alongside its closing credits. That quirk fed into 2015's The Big Short, a film that saw McKay applying the scattershot methods of his funnies - the widereaching ensemble cast, the spitballing approach to scene construction, the random celeb cameos - to material torn from the current affairs section. At least as much didn't land there as did, but it was a new way of doing (and talking about) business, so we shouldn't have been surprised that it turned heads as it did. Buoyed by the critical reception and Academy attention, McKay returns this week with Vice, a satirical biopic of George W. Bush's right-hand man Dick Cheney which intends to banish any nostalgia that might have started to gather around previous Republican administrations. Maybe McKay saw the chance to slip a few Dick jokes into a far grander picture - one or two survive into the finished feature - but Vice chiefly presents as a statement on the tendency of American politics to attract the most grasping and least redeemable white men on the planet, a gloomy thesis that, again, would have been unthinkable back in 2009. In our hyperaccelerated world, ten years is a very long time; in politics, it's practically a supereon.

The arc isn't entirely dissimilar from that of Oliver Stone's W. (itself ten years old now, itself stuffed with celeb impersonations): how a boozy, multiply DUI-ed good ol' boy from middle America came to serve as the respectable face of the Republican Party. McKay's script suggests this involved a series of deals not unlike those in The Big Short, rebranding bad as good. Upon quitting liquor and heeding the call to Washington, this Cheney (Christian Bale) strikes up a Starsky and Hutch-like double-act with mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) within a Nixon administration that somehow also provided shelter and employment for such individuals as recently disgraced Fox News chief Roger Ailes and hardline conservative judge Antonin Scalia. The impression we take from this brisk sketch of Republican politics of the 1970s was that it was its own form of melting pot, collecting together various cold, hard turds in a thick, roiling bouillabaisse of excrement. As the Beltway's most eminent floater, Bale's Cheney is a little bit like the actor's Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, peering out hollow-eyed through layers of perspective-warping latex; he's something like a vampiric Zelig, rubbing up against (and drawing power from his proximity to) the very worst men in recent American politics; with his bald pate and symbolically middling posture, there's even some resemblance at times to Danny de Vito's scheming Penguin in Batman Returns. This Dick has, in short, become a great movie character, and one of the film's few reliable pleasures is watching Bale, a performer who has all but mastered the art of acting under (here, some very subtle and accomplished) prosthetics, shifting shape within the flashback scenes and finally emerging as the notable monster, the Patton de nos jours, that McKay means to present Cheney as.

This process involves the dissemination of a lot of disparate information, and Vice often strays into didacticism to achieve it. There are isolated patches of crafty, pertinent writing, as with the scene that finds Cheney's wife Lynne (Amy Adams) on the stump somewhere in the Midwest, casually floating a phrase ("liberal elites") that has become a dismaying mainstay of our political discourse. More typical, however, is the early exchange that finds Cheney and Rumsfeld discussing the prospect of bombing Cambodia, which involves Cheney raising the issue of Congressional oversight, Rumsfeld waving it away, a cutaway to a "typical Cambodian village", and a close-up of our anti-hero pondering the implications of such an act, before the scene is interrupted by a narrator (Jesse Plemons) conceived to represent the place of the blue-collar common man within the Cheney narrative. McKay rarely seems to trust his audience to go along with his line of thought, what he's attempting to communicate. It's not enough that Dick and Lynne should recall Lord and Lady Macbeth by their actions; we have to witness Bale and Adams quoting Shakespearian dialogue - at excruciating length - while in bed together, and to the accompaniment of loud thunderclaps. (In such moments, you may find yourself longing for the subtle nuance of a Ferrell.) For all the film's warnings about the consequences of taking one's eye off the bigger political picture, and its urges to watch out for the quiet men, Vice is at least as ADHD and bombastic as McKay's comedies, constitutionally unable to maintain a consistent line, which squishes a good deal of the attempted seriousness.

As this week's Oscar nominations bore out, McKay has become a major Hollywood player with these two films, but he continues to think and cut like a jobbing comedy director - in short, sharp bursts, some more inspired than others. Cheney's frequent heart attacks become a running gag (with a somewhat fanciful punchline); everything around them becomes a bit, a riff, which explains why the film starts to feel a reel or two long at two hours ten, like those Judd Apatow comedies that came and went during McKay's popcorn heyday. (And Apatow was reaching far deeper into his characters.) In the second hour, which is stronger, you feel Vice gathering in purpose: something substantial clicks into place around the dramatisation of 9/11, and the plot to sell the public on the need for war in Iraq. Yet even here McKay is prone to a certain crassness - rhyming his Dubya (Sam Rockwell)'s tapping foot during the televised "shock and awe" speech with the trembling extremity of an Iraqi caught in the bomb blasts - and debatable speculation: I just didn't buy that a specific act of Cheneyian heartlessness led to the struggles of the present moment, as a late-film montage insinuates. The major advantage of the McKay approach is a superficial liveliness: this is a very watchable prestige movie that just can't get itself together to make its points stick. There remains something encouraging in witnessing a based-on-true-events movie having such irreverent fun with the based-on-true-events form - this one earns a chuckle for one of the best-executed fakeout endings in recent cinema - but I emerged from Vice with much the same two thoughts as I had coming out of The Big Short. Firstly: someone needs to sit Adam McKay down in front of Sullivan's Travels, stat. Second, and this should probably be a matter of urgent public policy: in a world that troubled us with Anchorman and Zoolander sequels, why no Step Brothers 2?

Vice opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.

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