Vice

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Adam McKay is an American treasure, a keenly intelligent, outrageously talented writer / producer / director whose last film, The Big Short (2015) and last television work, the pilot for Succession this year, were both phenomenal. His new film, Vice, a sweeping examination of Dick Cheney, will inevitably be seen in comparison to The Big Short; stylistically, they share similarities, together defining McKay’s new, mature “style” (as distinct from the major comedic chops he swung as writer / producer / director of such films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers). Vice suffers in that comparison – such is the problem when one follows a masterwork -but it is still vital and urgent and demands to be seen.

Christian Bale plays Cheney, Amy Adams his wife and co-conspirator Lynne, Steve Carell his mentor Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell his boss, George W. Bush. They’re all excellent; Bale once again proves himself a master of playing old white men under makeup and fat (I believe his own). Interestingly, in the scenes of Cheney as a younger man (the film, more of a traditional biopic than I was expecting, covers Cheney from college-age to the present), Bale seems hardly disguised at all, save for makeup to make him appear more youthful. Was Cheney ever that good looking?

As with The Big Short, McKay uses many techniques to tell his complicated story, including a non-linear structure, fragmented editing incorporating quick inserts of representative imagery (especially drawn from the world of fishing, Cheney’s hobby, which at least isn’t golf), and use of news, archival and other real-world footage. He also incorporates a narrator, mainly off-screen but sometimes on, played by Jesse Plemons, and sometimes relies too heavily upon him. There’s a lot of narration, and I felt a little spoon-fed, as though McKay had lost a little nerve, or a little trust in our own abilities to connect the dots. It felt like a surprising mis-step given the spectacular clarity with which McKay was able to tell the Big Short story, which was really complicated.

I have another quibble, and I’ll call spoiler alert, although of course this is a true story. McKay uses Cheney’s long support, and ultimate betrayal, of his daughter Mary’s homosexuality and her same-sex marriage as the emotional spine of the film and ultimate depiction of Cheney’s wickedness. But, as a title card at the end tells us, Cheney could be seen as responsible for well over 600,000 human deaths. Surely that is more powerful than his betrayal of his own daughter, as ghastly as that sounds? Again, it’s as though McKay worried that Cheney’s story was simply too cold to engage without a family hearth to shatter.

Ultimately I suspect McKay possibly could have developed a better version of this story given more development. As it is, it’s still totally worth your time. I hope it doesn’t just play to the converted.

The Big Short

image****1/2 (out of five)

Assured, brash, loud and very, very funny, The Big Short makes thrilling entertainment out of indescribably complicated financial shenanigans using any means necessary – such as offering up Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, by having a voice-over announce chirpily, “To explain it to you, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”

It’s that kind of irreverence that keeps this story of louts in suits powering ahead. Despite being loaded with lingo, drenched in jargon, it’s the most energetic movie outside of Fury Road this year. The cast, of course, help: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and particularly theatre luminary Jeremy Strong all know how to serve dialogue straight and hard towards the base line. The voice-over comes from Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling, himself no slouch in the machine-gun delivery department, and Brad Pitt takes a small but luxuriant role as a billionaire with a green streak. They’re all excellent.

Most impressively, director Adam McKay juggles our sympathies as well as he does the machinations of the convoluted (true) story. These guys are all essentially jerks but they’re juxtaposed against (mainly unseen) much bigger jerks, emerging as (dubiously) loveable underdogs. Michael Lewis wrote the book on which McKay and Charles Randolph’s zippy screenplay is based; he was the guy who wrote Moneyball, which was turned into a film that tonally echoes this one. Just like you didn’t need to know your fastball from your highball to enjoy that terrific film, so too The Big Short lets you in even if you can’t tell your Collateralised Debt Obligations from your Credit Default Swaps. Don’t miss it.