‘Vice’ Review: Welcome to the Christian Bale show

Power can be the most dangerous thing in the world when placed in the right person’s hands. Then again, it can be even more deadly when given to the wrong person. Welcome to Vice, the unofficial and completely off-the-record Dick Cheney story that you need in your life this Christmas.

Five years ago, few people would have pegged Adam McKay to bring you this take on the notoriously corrupt and morally ambiguous Vice President, but perhaps they weren’t paying enough attention to his work. In many of the writer/director’s outrageous comedies, Anchorman and Talladega Nights among them, the lead character was a haplessly overconfident yet alert oddball who held a high-ranking position or became an unlikely star.

Think about Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby for a second, two of McKay’s most popular creations. You don’t immediately think of Cheney, but let it sink in for a minute. McKay was simply winding up, cracking the safe of our hearts and finding a comfortable place to hide until it was time to strike. He made us laugh out loud for 11 years before earning a ticket to the Oscars with 2015’s The Big Short.

Vice is something else though-a stroke of genius that I believe only McKay could have pulled off. A divisive film about one of the most notorious politicians to ever walk the Earth and share control of this country that is sure to stir the pot this holiday season will definitely get people talking.

How much of it is true? I don’t know and honestly, I don’t care. The film starts out with a warning foreboding its dark comic intentions. It is a true story about one of the most secretive men in the history of our government, so sixteen grains of salt are required to truly appreciate the movie. As the prelude informs, McKay did his best in retelling Cheney’s tale. If you think about the realistic bones of Vice for too long, the enjoyment level goes down considerably, so just sit back and let the movie lean into you. Cheney was all-together evil, helped sink the country into a black hole it is still trying to pull itself out of, so don’t wonder for too long if he got a fair shake.

Cheney was a former college dropout who partied too hard, crashing out of Yale and nearly into jail. It was Lynne (a dynamic Amy Adams) who forced him to confront his maturity and get a compass in life. That direction led him to a speech from Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, having a lot of fun), who captured Cheney’s heart and led him into the world of politics…the right wing division.

Fox News has filled you in on the rest, but let’s run through it. Before he was George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell, firing on all cylinders) White House brain, Cheney was C.E.O. of a highly successful company (Halliburton) as well as Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense in previous Presidential terms. He planted eggs in Washington D.C. long before he orchestrated an invasion of Iraq via the worst attack on American soil and gave way to ISIS. Cheney took a symbolic position in politics and turned it into the mantle with which he ruled with an iron fist and changed the world as we know it.

McKay takes all of that action, blows on the dice, and tosses it down our throats like kettle corn for over two hours. I laughed so much, the theater manager could have impeached me if she saw fit.

There’s so many hilarious moments in this movie, including a Shakespearean bedroom dialogue riff between Dick and Lynne, and a faux credits roll midway through that is sure to pull laughs out of even the coldest conservative. A scene with Alfred Molina presenting Cheney and company a four option menu that covers all the illegal torture tactics defined by the Bush administration is dark comedy at its finest (and is expertly delivered by Alfred Molina). You know it all happened, so it’s best just to laugh out loud as much as the next person.

It would be impossible to tell a true-to-the bone story of Cheney’s life in politics, so McKay did the next best thing. Lay all the facts on the table, season them with just the right amount of spice, and create a film that reminds us of our deepest and darkest abilities when placed in a certain seat. Through all the comedy and eye rolls, McKay is showing us how the United States of America went careening down the hill. It’s all there. McKay just folds it into a cohesive film that comes off like a political porno with an edge.

That’s not to say the film is devoid of drama. The opening scene shows the Vice President being rushed to the panic room down below the White House when 9/11 occurs. It is there, through the narration of Jesse Plemons’ mystery character, that Cheney devises a plan that would flip the U.S. Government on its head for good. This isn’t South Park fratboy humor; just smart diabolical sardonic wit on full blast.

Telling you Christian Bale is outstanding as Cheney would be like telling you a steak at Tucker’s is just okay. He’s marvelous, fully transcendent, and devilishly great here, further cementing the notion that he can stand with Daniel Day Lewis when it comes to full-blown chameleon work. After I watched this film, I felt like the real Cheney should sign over a piece of his birth certificate or DNA to Bale, who inhabits him for two hours, making you a true believer of what is happening on screen. If you are going to roll the dice like McKay does here, you need a mad hatter to pull it off, and Bale is up to the task. The work he puts in here is similar to Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill last year. Go ahead and give the actor the Oscar now.

Adams has worked with Bale so often (The Fighter, American Hustle) that they have a comfort give and go onscreen, but here they become something else playing the real life power couple. Lynne was the woman behind Dick’s power moves, and Adams is something fierce in this film. Without much makeup or prosthetic, Adams give a ferociously sinister performance. The two actors are ribs for lunch here.

Carell is having a great year, and he’s doing it with polar opposite performances. He plays Rumsfeld like the kid at the arcade with too much candy and a fistful of quarters; a pyromaniac who saw something special in a young Cheney, unknowingly opening Pandora’s box on the world as we know it. Yet, near the end of the film, in an exchange between Rumsfeld and Cheney, you will feel sympathy for Carell’s chaotic Secretary of Defense, and is due to the actor’s talent. When you pair this with Beautiful Boy’s David Sheff and Edward Zwick’s Welcome To Marwen ahead, it’s hard not to think of 2019 as the Steve Carell show.

The cast as a whole should contend for best ensemble of the year, with Alison Pill, Justin Kirk, Bill Camp, Eddie Marsan, and Tyler Perry each getting their moment to shine. It’s an all-in effort that helps carry a film that hinges on  high wire antics from McKay.

Whenever people leave films based on true stories, all they want to do is debate on what was real and which parts the director juiced up for extra drama. It’s a tireless endeavor with no real end or satisfaction, so let me save you the trouble for Vice. No one will know how much of this is true or blended into reality, so just kick your feet up, and get ready to laugh. A lot.

Think of it as walking up to a bar and telling the bartender to make you a strong drink, allowing them to pick the ingredients. You’ll take a sip, shoot them a look, and thank them for expertly knocking you off-kilter. McKay is the bartender here and you are the customer needing a stiff drink at Christmas. It’s best just to let him finish.

When I left Vice, there was a huge smile on my face, and it couldn’t be directly related to being happy. Watching the big, bad wolf blow the country down over the course of a couple decades shouldn’t induce happiness. I was simply entertained and enlightened by the experience, marveling at what McKay pulled off. The guy who kicked off his career 18 years ago directing a Saturday Night Live segment with Alan Cumming and Jennifer Lopez had pulled it off.

Seriously though, give Bale the Oscar now.

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