Skip to main content

The VP just sits around and waits for the President to die. You’ve said so yourself.

Vice
(2018)

(SPOILERS) It doesn’t bode well when you have to preface your movie with an admission that you know fuck all about your subject matter, even going as far as using the f-word jokingly as a means of saying you’re hip to this problem but you’re going to struggle on manfully anyway, as you’re telling an important piece of political history in a populist and accessible manner. You think. Underlined by repeating it at the end (“If you leave knowing Cheney no better than when you arrived, you’ll know how we feel”), which only emphasises that being self-aware regarding your abject failure doesn’t make it any less of a failure, even if you allows one to be smugly pleased over job badly done. So no, Vice just isn’t very good.

Vice’s attitude, as “explained” in an end-credits scene, appears to be that, if you have liberal or less than hard-line Republican values, you’ll automatically be on board with Adam McKay’s brand of wishy-washy, ineffectually “satirical” (there isn’t much of that) dramatisation of biography notes that could be more briefly scanned on Dick Cheney’s Wiki page.

Not knowing much about a significant and morally bankrupt political figure (is there any other kind?) oughtn’t to be a barrier to probing them, but you need to be willing to take some risks if you do. Vice is about as risky as any other linear biopic you’ve seen in the last couple of decades, but it thinks it’s above that because McKay scored with The Big Short (which succeeded in almost every respect that Vice fails).

So yeah, if you don’t have any insight into your pro/antagonist, it’s probably best to take a view, or you end up inscribing exactly the lack of definition you complain about to begin with. It doesn’t help that your leading man, stuffed full of pies and layered with prosthetics (apparently, Bale didn’t actually undergo open heart surgery, the wuss) is so diligent in his focus on the performance trees, he misses the woods of motivation and ends up more Ned Beatty than political mastermind and power behind the W throne.

In this regard, the best McKay can come up with is that Cheney, in his Yale-dropout, pugilistic mess of formative years, has actually been “styled” by a strong woman pushing him forward, Amy Adams’ Lyne Vincent Cheney. Hence her crude early speech (“That’s just the way the world is for a girl. I need you”) suggesting that, in his own backward way, McKay thinks this is an empowering, progressive (feminist?) text; the morals involved scarcely matter as long as you can point to some flag of positivity behind this profound culpability. At least there’s a vague edge later, as Cheney stands up for his lesbian daughter and refuses to campaign against gay marriage/rights. And then suggests his other daughter, running for a seat, opposes the same rights. Which means we have a presentation of the man as something of a model husband and parent (he’s the best father he can be to both his ideologically opposed daughters, quite a feat), but the rest remains inscrutable and ultimately as tepid in tone as Oliver Stone’s similarly (mis)conceived W.

Naturally, this is a dyed-in-the-wool Hollywood production; if Stone toes the party line for official versions of events, McKay’s hardly going to break ranks. So you’ll get nary a Truther whiff from Vice (But Dick Cheney saw something else that no one did; “He saw an opportunity” is the official 9/11 verdict). And you won’t come in sniffing distance of Bohemian Grove. Hell, you’ll even be confused as to why he keeps having heart attacks, since you have to go to Wiki to learn he was a three-packs-a-day man (he’s seen smoking a few times, but then, so is Lyn). As close as we get is the “acceptable” conspiracy of 2000 election fraud. McKay’s idea of heavy hitting seems to be having Jesse Plemons’ narrator turn out to be Cheney’s heart donor, which is about as irrelevant as it gets but is positioned as some kind of trump card (you see how he feeds off the innocent and thrives?) That narration is particularly irksome, as it attempts to make a virtue out of sounding knowing about knowing nothing.

McKay wants to focus on Cheney once has taken on the title role, which is understandable, but this means many of his activities are reduced to one-sentence-in-passing footnotes. There’s little of consequence about Haliburton, the shooting incident is about twenty seconds, and there’s a The Big Short approach to quick-glance takes on death taxes and climate change policies that concisely give the lowdown on the makers’ view of their recharacterisation. The Big Short managed to deliver indigestible and complex material in a relevant, amusing and instructive manner. Vice does none of that. You certainly aren’t going to come away with any insights, knowing something you didn’t know before or having a new perspective on any of the events Cheney masterminded. McKay seems to have set out his store with “Dick’s kinda bad. But he’s still vaguely human, right?” Which is exactly the movie Vice didn’t need to be. It makes it about as purposeful as J Edgar.

There aresome good moves here. Steve Carrell is a hit as Donald Rumsfeld (“Don’t worry, I’m like bed bugs. They’ll have to burn the mattress to get rid of me”; “You’re a little piece of shit” he tells Cheney when he’s finally forced out, and when Dick says he’s sorry, responds “Well, you know how I know you’re not? I wouldn’t be”). And with Sam Rockwell’s Dubya, a glimpse of the more irreverent and risky version of Vice (on this evidence, Rockwell should have led Stone’s film; it might have saved it from its forgettably sleepy fate). But Vice is as essential as 99 percent of other political pictures of the last twenty years (be they directly political or tackling relevant current subjects, usually the War on Terror), coasting on the idea that sitting on the right (as in, correct) side of the political spectrum is enough. And 99 percent of the time, no one wants to see them.

Vice’s eight Oscar nominations garnered just the one win, and I’m not entirely surprised. Good as Rockwell is, there’s just not enough of him, while Bale’s performance is probably the most technically impressive of the nominees, but that’s only half the battle, if you’re failing to convey anything about the man you’re playing. Original Screenplay, well it was a weak year. Hank Corwin’s editing here is nothing like the achievement of The Big Short, and while the picture plays with time frame a little, it’s not enough to make this feel other than standard fare (like the winner, funnily enough). Yeah, the makeup’s good, I’ll grant you. Wiki characterised Vice as a “biographical comedy-drama”, but it’s not very funny, and it’s too diluted to be dramatic. Like the other overtly political nominee of the year (BlacKkKlansman) it assumes its viewpoint is enough. Which, I suppose, it is. But only enough to get nominated.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…