PLOT The rise of George W. Bush’s secretly powerful vice president Dick Cheney.
CAST Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell
RATED R (language)
BOTTOM LINE Not really a biopic but a two-hour hate-fest that stoops lower than necessary and rarely scores a laugh. (Opens Dec. 25)
Adam McKay’s “Vice,” ostensibly a biopic of Dick Cheney, begins with the text of what seems like an apology. The story we are about to see, McKay explains, is about “as true as it can be,” given Cheney’s penchant for personal and professional privacy. Despite the scrutiny he endured as CEO of the multinational energy company Halliburton and vice president to George W. Bush, Cheney’s story remains relatively vague.
“But,” McKay writes, throwing in a frustrated expletive, “we did our best.”
By the end of “Vice,” that statement seems debatable. “Vice” is not an attempt to explain or understand Dick Cheney at all. It’s not really a life story, but a bitter reminder that Cheney helped sell Americans a war in Iraq using false information. A fair point — but all this movie wants to do is punish him for it. With Christian Bale in a remarkable transformation as the monochrome Cheney (the actor gained 45 pounds for the role), “Vice” is the perfect film for anyone who felt that “W.,” Oliver Stone’s biography of the 43rd president (with Richard Dreyfuss as a much more human Cheney) lacked the proper level of hatred.
Writer-director McKay, who has lately switched from comedies (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and other Will Ferrell vehicles) to sociopolitical broadsides (“The Big Short,” a pointed tale about the 2008 financial collapse, also starring Bale), fills this movie with caricatures and grotesqueries. As Cheney evolves from drunken lout to Washington eager-beaver to White House showrunner, we meet the knee-slapping yokel known as W (Sam Rockwell), the sinister Donald Rumsfeld (an enjoyable Steve Carell) and several supporting players — Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Condoleezza Rice, etc. — whose names are uttered like evil incantations.
Amy Adams, as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, does her best to play a real human, but McKay prefers her as a scheming Lady Macbeth, goading her husband to power. In bed together, Lynne and Dick suddenly begin trading mock-Shakespearean pillow-talk: “Danced nimbly ’round the kings’ hearth thou hath,” she says, getting excited, “even whilst clamored I for more!”
For some, that scene will qualify as gonzo political satire. It’s also proof that the movie isn’t serious about trying to bring a historical figure to life. McKay so despises his subject that he turns Cheney’s multiple heart attacks into a running gag — an exceedingly low blow. “Vice” may paint an unflattering portrait, but the movie doesn’t come away looking much better.