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CINEMASCOPE: A CONFUSION OF TONE

January 06, 2019

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A biographical comedy/drama about Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), Vice hits the ground running with a narrative that takes the power-hungry American Vice-President to task. It gives us a look at the White House during its most challenging times, such as September 11, while also taking us through some of his early years. Sometimes good, occasionally boring, the film has plenty of flaws holding it back, most of which can be traced to the style of its writer and director.

From 2004 to 2013, filmmaker and former SNL head-writer Adam McKay made a series of comedies with his muse Will Ferrell, including the Anchorman films. It wasn’t until 2015 that he hit the big league with The Big Short, the comedy/drama with an ensemble cast about the American housing crisis that critics like me loved. What viewers particularly liked was how the film broke the fourth wall by using celebrities in cameo experiences to explain directly to the viewers somewhat complicated concepts in simple, engaging and clever terms.

The reason I bring up The Big Short and these sequences is that Vice, Adam McKay’s first film since, tries to replicate that cleverness, but doesn’t quite succeed. This is because Vice is confused tonally. Is it a biopic? Well, for a significant portion of its runtime it feels like a sincere by-the-numbers retelling of the man’s life. Its depiction of its target as a family man feels especially at odds with the rest of the narrative. Or is it satire? A few scenes are certainly pure satire, and they are mostly amusing. Or is it a spoof? In certain scenes, the actors were clearly directed to perform in an exaggerated manner that surely wasn’t representative of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) or George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Sadly, the film doesn’t switch gears too smoothly.

Is Vice a biopic of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, a satire or a spoof? Director Adam McKay can’t seem to make up his mind

In my view, Vice should have gone all the way with the absurdity, because it is at its best when it is satirising these powerful men. At the same time, the film can be a bit ham-fisted too. Now, as a liberal-minded person, I didn’t mind the many low jabs Adam McKay fires at some of the most corrupt conservative politicians in history who played a large part in destabilising certain parts of the world. But your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for how mean a film can get when it comes to roasting its targets. While the best satire is both clever and fun, Vice is only the latter, and rarely the former.

The film’s saving grace is its performances. Supporting actors such as Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell have fun with their roles, and are worth a few chuckles. But it is Christian Bale once again in an extraordinary performance.

If you’ve followed the British actor’s career, you’ll know that from The Machinist (2004) to playing Batman to The Fighter (2010), he has put himself through incredible physical changes for his roles. Here, he has gone through another physical transformation to play the ageing, obese man in a performance that captures all of Dick Cheney’s mannerisms, including his often expressionless nature. I would have said he was a shoo-in for Best Actor at the Oscars, but the only thing holding him back is the film itself.

In my view, Vice should have gone all the way with the absurdity, because it is at its best when it is satirising these powerful men. At the same time, the film can be a bit ham-fisted too.

Rated R for language and some violent images

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 6th, 2019

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