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« Review: Capernaum | Main | Blueprints: Five Expertly Written Scenes of 2018 »
Thursday
Jan032019

Four Random Thoughts on "Vice"

by Eric Blume

Adam McKay’s film Vice has been out in theaters for two weeks or so now, and as we head into Golden Globe weekend where it leads the nominations, we ought to discuss it a bit more. Here are some thoughts about the film, which do carry SPOILERS, not about story points (as unfortunately these things really happened), but about just how truly odd this film is in so many ways...

THE CREDITS: How bizarre is it that Vice breaks all usual protocol with how film credits are executed…but not even in an interestingly bizarre way (unless you count its mid film credits gag)?  Tradition has it that a film has either top personnel opening credits (producers and actors, along with all major head of departments from costume to camera to editing) or almost no opening credits (sometimes just the film’s title, saving the credits for the end).  Vice has 6 total credit cards at the opening of the film:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, a card that says “written and directed by Adam McKay’ and the film’s title card.  That’s it. Why eschew all the other contributors? It’s neither a good nor a bad thing, just odd.

THE SETUP:  The film officially starts with a card that says:

The following is a true story…or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history…but we did our fucking best.”  

The only real reason for that card is to set a tone for the audience…this is a comedy, you guys! Sort of kind of. Well, okay, if there aren’t any actual laughs in this comedy, just know that we’re making a movie with attitude! The card also positions the creative team as a bunch of cool people who are super hip because they curse? Do people really find that line to be funny? At the very least, it takes you out of the movie (i.e., a self-aware tone that there’s a filmmaking team (‘we”) you should be aware of at all times), before you’re even inside of it. 

THE ACTING:  Does anyone else find it frustrating that no actor really has the scenes to fully flesh out a character with an arc?  Sam Rockwell delivers as always in his brief handful of moments, but he’s there mostly for comic relief, not given the chance to give us a George Bush of any depth or substance.  Steve Carell contributes some broad comedy work without having any actually funny lines as Donald Rumsfeld…we never get to see what makes him tick. Amy Adams starts out with a few firecracker scenes, but she disappears after them, relinquished to the background with nothing new or interesting to play.  

Christian Bale is the whole show, and he gives Vice whatever power it has. But even Bale isn’t able to make full sense of Cheney as written. In the early scenes, he’s positioned as a deadbeat, unambitious loser… and there’s almost no connective tissue to help us understand how he goes from this into the brutal power player we see through the last three quarters of the movie. Bale is one of our greatest actors, and his work here features incredible physical detail and intelligence. Yet, when the film ended, I didn’t understand Cheney in any new way, as the film’s emphasis is on the events of his life, not on the characterization.

McKAY’S KITCHEN SINK APPROACH:  There’s nothing Adam McKay won’t throw at you.  Words on the screen that punctuate the narration.  Cutaways with someone brandishing a razor. Fake end credits at the midway point.  National Geographic footage. This was his style for The Big Short as well, and some people really enjoy it.  I feel it lacks consistency and control. Both films are about intensely terrifying things where millions of lives are at stake, and both films are given a full bag-of-tricks 'let’s-throw-this-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks' treatment that has no unifying vision.  McKay has an absurd amount of talent, for sure, but I’d argue that his direction in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, where his absurd streak can run wild on material more smartly suited for it, is superior to these two recent movies.  The scene where Cheney convinces Bush to give him additional power is intercut here with fishing footage…yes, Bush is buying it hook, line, and sinker…I got it, I got it.  It’s not subtle.

Vice has some dynamic moments for sure, and as a study in soullessness, it scores.  But as the stakes get higher and higher and the moral compromises more disturbing, you want to be awash with feeling that never comes. Since the film has been positioned largely as a joke, it has little power, other than the grief you may personally bring to it.  There’s so much brilliant talent in Vice, and I want to love it, but I’m just confused.  

What's your take on Vice? Are you in the pro or con camp?

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Reader Comments (26)

I think we need a break from Christian Bale and Amy Adams acting together .... The Fighter, American Hustle, Vice, it’s overkilll

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I think we need a break for both Adams and Bale, acting together or acting separately.

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Just raw the movie today and thought it was amusing, but no great shakes.

The makeup was amazing, Can you b believe that is the best I can say!!??

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Neither Adams nor Bale deserve nominations for this. I love McKay's jokey, rapid-fire, kitchen-sink style, nobody's doing it but him, however, his style and direction are what give this movie its character...his writing? Not so much.

You're right about the characters. They're lacking depth. I actually thought Carell's Rumsfeld had the most to chew on. It's subtle but it's there...he's a cad that the uppity Washington types don't want around anymore, and there's a very fine sadness of insecurity behind the jokes and verbal surliness. If anyone gets nominated it should be Carell.

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTr

I've never watched an Adam McKay movie before and I'm definitely not going to start with this mess. Thank you, next.

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Terrible, terrible film. Loved reading this.

What a horror if THIS is what Adams finally wins for.

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I just emerged from this. I think it’s the second worst movie of the year (after NEVER GOIN’ BACK). I find Adam McKay to be such a hack (I also loathed THE BIG SHORT), but I succumbed to its awards buzz and bought a ticket. I think it’s the kind of movie enjoyed by people who don’t possess the intellectual rigor to read whole NYT articles and skim through the HuffPost instead. The acting is good, although Bale still does Batman voice, and I don’t find Amy Adams nearly Academy Award-worthy here. Grade: F

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Crowe

I think the more interesting question to ask is WHY McKay takes this kitchen sink approach. For THE BIG SHORT, it allowed him to explain some tricky technical concepts without losing the audience. There's a bit of that here, but I think it's more to give him dramatic licence to make shit up as well as make a sort-of-biopic about someone he obviously detests.

I don't think the mix of drama and satire always works but the film is more entertaining than a straight biopic would have been. That set-up card telegraphs that this is not an ordinary biopic - the audience I saw the film with laughed.

I agree the characters don't have strong arcs, and remain unknowable to the director (or he doesn't care about understanding their real motivations). But the performances help paper over the cracks. The strength of Adams' outburst at Bale near the start signals that was the main reason he changed. And Bale trying to find the humanity in Cheney, rather than playing him for laughs, gives a nice tension by working against how McKay is framing and commenting on the action.

I didn't love the film but I think it's ambitious and interesting even if it doesn't always succeed. And I'm surprised you didn't mention Nicholas Britell's score - which was marvellous and not the kind of bombastic music I'd expect for a film like this. I'm very happy to see it on the final shortlist of 15 for the Original Score Oscar, even if he'll likely get (deservedly) nominated for the more expressive and beautiful Beale Street score instead.

January 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Four thoughts on Vice:
1. It's bad.
2. It's really, really bad.
3. It purports to be a true story, but relies on caricatures of its main characters-- literally, at several points they laugh maniacally at the camera. Frequently, it strains credulity.
4. It leaves us with zero idea why Cheney went into politics, why he was so drawn to Rumsfeld and the Republican Party (because they were powerful? to make money? to make Lynne happy? just to have something to do?), or why he did basically anything he did. Being "soulless" doesn't cut it-- even if you lack a conscious, you have to have some motivation and Vice *does*not*give*us* that motivation.

It is an atrocious film.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

That last point tho. The heavy-handed symbolism, like the fishing and the fucking stacking of cups, left me fuming. We get it. The "teacups" are about to topple onto each other. We don't need to see it. It all felt like such rudimentary screenwriting.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKristenCraze

I think you've all somehow missed the point, which is weird considering how blunt the film is. This is not a subtle, nuanced examination of a political figure and it's not meant to be. It is confrontational, furious, polemical agitprop that wants to smack you in the face with the heinousness of the GOP. It does this exceedingly well. The culminating sequence with the heart transplant is just about the most damning metaphor I think I've ever seen in contemporary American cinema for the literally soul-sucking existence of the modern day Republican party.

"Vice" is barely a comedy, and that's what it gets right, where "BlacKkKlansman" got it all wrong. I'm not sure what you see as a joke - to me this played like almost straight horror.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Chris;

You sound a little vapid.

In general, I'm curious about how this is going to be and I have ideas in my head...but nonetheless, I'm really uncomfortable with the way some people have criticized this film.

Not in this review, mind you. I had to skip thru in order to avoid spoilers, but it's a well-written and thoughtful review. I just get uncomfortable with the way the people are hating this, or wanting to hate this.

Nathaniel as well...and forgive me, Nathaniel. I've read this site a long time, for whatever that's worth. But some people are reveling in how they hate this and the way they're reveling is self-defeating.

I will see this, but I wish I already had just so I could partake more in this conversation.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Me - I tend to agree. I'm not directing this at Eric or Nathaniel, however, as I actually think this was a pretty even handed review of Vice expressing its flaws and successes.

On the whole though, Vice and Green Book have been rather unfairly trounced by a portion of critics. It seems to be a calculated attack to harm both film's chances, but I don't think it'll affect their success at the Oscars in the end.

It also seems to be the case that many critics are seeing fit to denounce these films not just as flawed but as UNIFORMLY TERRIBLE without argument. Now here's the thing: I have seen both of these films. And so no matter how many times people say 'ughh' or 'this film made me want to scratch my eyes out', it's not going to convince me that either Vice and Green Book are uniformly terrible.

I don't take these critics particularly seriously, particularly because there is no nuance in their critique. It seems political inclination is the no. 1 factor in reaching their conclusion. And I say this as someone with the same inclination as the guys writing the critiques!

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvangelina

Maybe it will the mother! o this yr n nom for a bunch o Razzies? 😂

I dunno y impersonation is the norm for critically acclaimed performance now, but Bale could easily put on a fake bodysuit n not do this to hurt his health. This all seems so gimmicky!! N almost every reviewers r falling for it n applauding his move, which is unhealthy!

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I hated The Big Short and never understood what people found so interesting about it. It felt It was gimmicky and silly. Still unsure about this one, but most likely will end up watching it.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterV.

Adam Mckay is a crack addict and he should return to giving Will Ferrell good material.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

Please please please please please don't let Amy Adam win for this. I love her too much to have her name tarnished like that, she deserves so much better.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJB

Agree with Jonathan. It is agitprop. I'd rather have this vision and the filmmaker going for it than a boring by-the-numbers biopic about Cheney that attempts to "show both sides," which from the reviews, is what most critics were hoping for. But the funny thing is, when biopics come out that do just that, they're criticized by critics for being generic and formulaic. So what do you want?

I really don't get the hatred toward this movie. It may not all work, but any cinema lover should appreciate that we have something different in the theaters.

You can't have it all, people! You want original mainstream films? You want a break from the superhero movies? Flaws and all, that's Vice.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

Evangelina;

Very well said and totally agree with all of that. Green Book is a very very good film. I don't get the hate for it, criticism over its "racial politics" (clearly doesn't take a politician to politicize things". Don't get the negativity behind its comparison to Driving Miss Daisy.

Joseph;

Yes!


Claran;


Actors do things to get themselves into character. It's a bit ridiculous to see the gimmicky side of things. Whether it's hair or shoes or whatever. I don't know that it's all his weight, I thought I'd heard there was some bodysuit, but gimmick is presumptuous.


kris01;


You got some problems bruh.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Me- With all due respect, see the film before you criticize someone for coming down too harshly on it. I went into Vice with an open mind. I didn't mind The Big Short and I hate Cheney as much as the next Dem. (As an aside, remember a time before Vice came out when people were afraid it would come down too favorably on the GOP of the 2000s? It definitely doesn't do that!) Yet, I still found it heavy-handed, clichéd, and full of holes. I'm entitled to that opinion, having sat through 132 minutes of the film. Just because someone doesn't like the film -- even if they're very strong in their feelings against it -- doesn't mean that they went in "wanting to hate" it.

Jonathan and Joseph- I understand why some are labeling it agitprop, but the film starts out with a "Based on a True Story" title card. Every five or ten minutes, there's a scene whose sole purpose is to explain history to the audience. It has multiple ambitions, yes, but at least one of them is to be factual and I don't know how it can try to reconcile that ambition with the caricaturish way it portrays its main characters.

Moreover, if the film wants to show how heinous the GOP is, shouldn't it explain their motivations? Until a card comes up near the end explaining Halliburton's stock growth, I don't think the film even gives a whiff of why Cheney sought power.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Your last paragraph is why The Big Short and its emotional payoff is a far superior movie to Vice. Vice plays like a Mel Brooks film, the problem is it's not funny and it's real.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

"Me" -Thank you for your kindness. You seem like a classy person.

I believe it would be quite impossible for a person to watch every single movie ever made. There are still so many interesting movies from all the world from all different time periods that I still haven't watched yet so why would I start with Adam Mckay's filmography when every movie of his looks so largely unappealing?

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Evan;

Don't think you read thru, but that's ok.


Chris;

Thanks. Beautiful name.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Just curious - but are all the Vice haters Republicans? I visited IMDB and ALL the negative reviews were mainly by republican supporters.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

I read your comment multiple times, Me.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Bette Streep, it's perceived as a Bernie Bro movie which explains the hate from all directions.

January 4, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

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