Film Review: ‘Vice’ Rises in Christian Bale’s Performance But Sinks Elsewhere

Only Christian Bale's bombastic performance rises above Adam McKay's indulgent script...

Difficult to navigate in the perception of reality and an influenced outlook on our political climate, Adam McKay‘s “Vice” straddles the line often between engaging satire and caricature horseplay for the sake of comedy.  Elements of brilliance sprinkled throughout, more precisely McKay’s direction decisions, you walk away with “Vice” with one robust, firm assertion: Christian Bale may have delivered the performance of his career as the divisive former Vice President Dick Cheney, hammering home the inclinations and sentiments of a man whose own judgments and motivations are called into question.  It’s hard to point to a more zealous and layered performance seen this year.

“Vice,” tells the story of Dick Cheney (Bale), an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), reshaping the country and the globe in ways that are felt until this day.  With his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams) in tow, and help from some of the biggest political players of history like Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), the portrait of power is tested among its limits.

Adam McKay, a vocal and active citizen in politics, allows his personal feelings and influences, not just to drip from scene to scene, but pour from the story in an overwhelming gush of Republican Evil Class 101.  Giving himself leeway by opening the film with a title card that suggests it is unknown if all of this was true, makes the final product more forgiving than otherwise would be.  McKay maneuvers through Cheney’s life, displaying his dodging of the draft, and his run-ins with the law before his political success. An active and ardent hater of his previous film, “The Big Short,” this felt less polarizing and constructed with a bit more cinematic tricks for the sake of doing them.  He allows scenes to breathe within themselves, taking liberties on how the viewer interacts with the characters with four-wall breaking but with a sense of sincerity.

It is frustrating to watch someone who displays an intelligent amount of abilities behind the camera, be bogged down by his agenda that it manages to take away from the simple truth that can be swallowed within a single scene or sentence.  Most of the country is divided, a reality that is known.  Seemingly preaching to the choir, “Vice“does not attempt to bridge the divide, rather than just be satisfied with that division and point the finger.  McKay had an opportunity that was unfortunately missed in that regard.

What Adam McKay does well is dig something extraordinary out of his actors notably Christian Bale.  In a career that has spawned the likes of “American Psycho,” “The Machinist,” and “The Fighter” (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2010), it seemed unlikely to get anything as jaw-dropping from Bale at this point, and yet, here we are.  Acting gymnastics are on full parade, showcasing all the subtle varieties and committing to every word and facial beat.  The makeup and hairstyling are surely to be a credited aspect to his work, but Bale achieves more than one could have ever thought minus the showiness of hairlines and weight gains.

Amy Adams, who co-starred alongside Bale in “The Fighter,” and was also nominated for an Oscar, serves her character well.  In a Lady Macbeth-type construction, Adams delivers a version of Peggy Dodd in “The Master,” that frankly was done much better previously.  Her commitment is apparent, but Adams can’t lift herself off the page of a woman that labors no other purpose than a cliched woman painted as a string-puller and a motivating component of evils performed, even to her own family.

Recent Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell bounces back from his beloved performance in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” with an impression of Will Ferrell doing his George W. Bush motif from “Saturday Night Live.”  Again, unable to transport anything but transparent insecurity, Rockwell flounders in parts, missing the mark more times than not.  Steve Carell, who was one of the better parts of “The Big Short,” feels vacant and unengaged in a role that isn’t as explored as one should be, which is surprising given McKay’s apparent agenda.

McKay does assemble some impressive players for his ensemble that get higher marks than most, notably Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, and Jesse Plemons as our “narrator.”  Hank Corwin‘s quick edits work better this time around, principally a segment in the middle where the credits begin to roll.  Glaring narrative humps in the first third is saved by a peculiar finale.  Nicholas Britell‘s score pops in moments while Greig Fraser‘s camera work is a palette of different colors that vibrates.

Vice” has its fair share of problems and some that will annoy the most liberal of minds.  Holding it together wholly is Bale’s bombastic performance and a few key, exciting scenes to indulge.  Bale’s work is utterly worthy of every citation in the awards season and has likely emerged a serious contender for his second Academy Award.  In the end, you walk away with less information than you thought and more of confusion that has you asking yourself, “was I here for all that?”

“Vice” is distributed by Annapurna Pictures and opens in theaters on Dec. 25.

GRADE: (★½)

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “VICE” ranks among the contenders!