Vice

REVIEW: Veep Pies – Christian Bale beefs up his gut but nothing else in this thin political satire that is hitting screens ten years too late anyway.  

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Maybe their job offers got mixed up in the post, because it seems like a real missed opportunity that Christian Bale didn’t pile on the pounds to play Oliver Hardy and that it didn’t occur to anyone that John C Reilly in a fat suit would make an ideal Dick Cheney. Bale can be always be relied upon to eat himself into a role, but this usually admirable commitment to authenticity wasn’t necessary for a film as self-consciously inauthentic as Vice.

Writer-director Adam McKay was behind the informative and bleakly amusing expose The Big Short, which used snark and Family Guy style cut-away gags to make persuasive points about the amorality of Wall Street and its role in the previous decade’s devastating financial crash. He adopts a similar approach here, but with much less success, and Bale’s studiously Method approach to his portrayal of the controversial former VP is at odds with the broad strokes the film otherwise deals in. Having morphed himself into the spitting image of latter-day Chevy Chase, Bale isn’t given much to work with.  He’s unable to disappear into the role: he’s a fat Christian Bale doing his Batman voice.

The whole horror of Dick Cheney is his Rufus T Firefly attitude: ‘these are my principles, if you don’t like them, I have others.’ As far as the film is concerned, he’s a plank, a cipher, an idiot-savant who believes in nothing but the accumulation of power, and as a result has no personality. A running gag involves his laconically suggesting a visit to the hospital whenever he has a heart attack. This makes for a central character who is not just unlikeable but dull. This lug needed livening up.

Christian Bale is unable to disappear into the role: he’s a fat Christian Bale doing his Batman voice.

McKay, having made his name with straightforward comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, is repositioning himself as a satirist, but in an effort to be taken seriously he might be ignoring his comic instincts: Cheney is in many ways a ludicrous figure and could have been played more ludicrously. Will Ferrell is credited as producer; he might also have made a better job of it, if Reilly wasn’t available.

The again, the satire on offer is hardly biting: when it’s not being lazily crude – Cheney was such a persuasive advisor, big shots would listen even if he suggested they all got their dicks out! – it’s soft-balled and lame. A fake ending (complete with credits) peppered with ‘facts’ such as Cheney’s success at Iron Man contests, is straight out of Mad Magazine.

Partly this is because McKay seems unwilling to provide any shading when it comes to his portrayal of the Bush administration. Lots of American critics wrote off Vice on principle, appalled that a film might concentrate on such a divisive political figure as Cheney in the first place. That’s quite understandable, but they needn’t have worked themselves up over it. McKay doesn’t have the daring to ever suggest you might root for this bastard, which is probably a wise choice, commercially at least, considering even how prescriptive online response has become in the few years since Martin Scorsese was getting it in the neck for ‘glamorising’ Jordan Belfort, but it means there are few surprises to be had.

An experience more like being hectored by a well-meaning but relentless politics student.

Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell, wisely opting for broader comic performances, are entertaining as George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, but their characters never rise above the usual shorthand of hick dope and sleazeball, as seen in a million SNL sketches.

Some of their more arcane political machinations are livened up by pointed fantasy sequences, as they were in The Big Short. Most memorable is one in which a waiter (played by Alfred Molina) offers up a menu of various immoral wartime policies. There is also an interesting framing device involving Jesse Plemons as a blue-collar narrator which offers the film’s best twist and most tortuous visual metaphor, but by and large it’s wan stuff. Vice doesn’t have the heft to pull off its attempts at knowing irony. Instead it provides an experience more like being hectored by a well-meaning but relentless politics student.

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Occasionally, it’s straightforwardly patronising, such as when Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney laments that ‘she can’t go to a fancy school or get a job as an executive, that’s just how it is for women these days.’ The only people who will see this film are educated, politically savvy liberals; they don’t need such subtext spelling out for them.

Likewise, McKay doesn’t earn the occasional graphic footage of terrorist atrocities (including 7/7) and wartime violence. Fair enough he wants to emphasise the real-life consequences of these amoral politicos actions (although the suggestion that Cheney is directly responsible for the foundation of Isis is a bit of a stretch) but it’s heavy handed.

Unlike The Big Short, which had relevance on its side, Vice doesn’t really have any reason to exist. ‘Dick Cheney: what an asshole’ is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, but more than a decade since he was last in office it’s a bit late in the day to be voicing it. There are monsters to be found in the White House right now, and if Adam McKay really wants to make a difference, it’s them he should be fattening up his actors to lampoon.