The woke-ening of Adam McKay started in a strange place: the closing credits of his 2010 Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys. As the names of second unit directors and assistant location managers flashed across the screen, so did statistics and figures about government bailouts and hefty CEO bonuses in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. McKay later turned that PowerPoint presentation into 2015’s The Big Short, a scathing comedy about the crisis that earned him a Best Screenplay Oscar.
Now he’s made Vice, a total flex from an entirely self-assured filmmaker. A damning, decades-spanning portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Vice is a far cry from the genial comedies McKay used to make, like Anchorman and Step Brothers. Instead, it’s an angry, messy, overbearing, and frequently brilliant film—one that's indulgent in ways that are simultaneously admirable and irritating.
At worst, it feels like a mash-up of Oliver Stone's and Michael Moore’s worst tendencies. At its best, though, Vice is an elaborate juggling act of ideas and techniques, including broad comedy, documentary footage, propaganda, fourth-wall-busting, vicious satire, expository narration, and reworked Shakespeare. It’s impressive. It’s also exhausting.
Christian Bale plays Cheney, and a lot's been made of the realism of his impersonation, which—sure, he’s great. He’s Christian Bale. He’s always been decent at his job. The rest of the cast is just as good, if not better, including Amy Adams as the Lady Macbeth-like Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Cheney’s longtime ally Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush.
The movie is very funny at times, but seconds later it turns so dark that you'll feel a little like a ping pong ball that's getting swatted around. See, the thing is, it turns out that this Dick Cheney fella was not a very good guy.
That’s the main problem with Vice: It tells us something we already know. And while McKay is dogged in the ways he presents this information—he even suffered a Cheney-esque heart attack during filming—the movie more than occasionally turns into a clunky, overlong tirade. The timing of Vice, too, feels off, now that Cheney's long gone and America has a fresh set of problems to deal with.
Still, there’s a lot going on with the movie that’s fascinating and effective and funny. Is it enough to make Vice worth seeing? I think so. The performances really are something, but more than that, it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s this angry, and is so unconcerned with hiding it.