Vice ★★

Thoughts on this are varied (this is a very, very long review) and fairly incoherent. Here they are, in bullet-point format:

- First off, the obvious: Dick Cheney was a terrible person (as were Rumsfeld, Scalia, Nixon, Libby, Addington, Wolfowitz, etc). If you’re one of the 20% of Americans who disagrees with me on that, Vice will likely make zero sense to you. It’s a truly, uh, vicious indictment of a vicious man, perhaps the only person to have used the Vice Presidential office for such horrible gains. Adam McKay has called Cheney “much worse than Trump,” and I’m inclined to agree. The latter is extremely dumb, and using the office of President in a disgraceful way; the former was extremely smart but used it in this way anyway. Because of his intelligence, there’s no excuse for the shamelessly corporate way in which he used the US’ second-highest office. And Trump (as awful as he is) certainly didn’t lay the foundation for much of modern American conservative discourse - whereas Cheney, with his let’s-call-it-climate-change cynicism, is at least partially responsible for the shape it has taken.

- Interesting to note that those who found this “condescending” (myself included) didn’t notice that The Big Short also had that tone in spades. McKay’s comedies are just a lot better than his comedy-dramas, because as soon as he has to explain something to an audience he assumes they’re much dumber than he is. Filmmakers: we know who Dick Cheney is. We know he was Bush’s Vice President. We know what the financial crisis was. You don’t need to explain these things to us, over and over. Just trust us to work things out eventually, and, if we don’t, as a species we’re biologically inclined to Google it.

- On a similar note, McKay gets really, really didactic with this. I’m all for the message about neoconservatives being destructive forces, but as with any message I tend to disconnect when it’s continually explained. Jesse Plemons literally says to the screen at one point how selfish Cheney is, and there is almost no single scene in the last act that has any purpose other than making his actions seem even worse. One montage detailing the torture of many under the US’ custody, in particular, might be the nadir of McKay’s career.

- This makes no excuses; it’s unabashedly a movie by (and for) liberals. Again, this isn’t a bad thing – I’m about as liberal as a person can get – but it would have been nice to present some kind of counterargument. This ruthlessly argues that Cheney is deficient in basic human decency for more than two hours, excepting two scenes. The first involves his daughter coming out as lesbian, and Cheney’s subsequent acceptance of her for who she is regardless. That does stir some empathy for the man (although his wife is portrayed as a full-on Lady Macbeth character). The second is more of a defence of Cheney’s actions than an attempt to make him seem more human – it tries to justify the Iraq war and the US’ response post-9/11, and is actually reasonably effective. Turning directly to the camera, he talks about why it was the best answer for the US and why he still won’t apologise for it. These two scenes are as close as Vice comes to having some sort of sense of history – the first makes you empathise slightly with the man, and the second might make you think his actions were a bit less insane.

- Sure, it’s tonally incoherent (it can’t decide whether it’s a drama, a doc, a mock-doc, or a comedy), but at least that does lend the film a few decent jokes. The first comes at you right off the bat, with the title cards pronouncing (I’m paraphrasing): “This is the true story of Dick Cheney’s life. It was sometimes hard to piece together, given that he is known as one of the most reclusive public figures in American history. But we did our fucking best.” The second (which had me actively laughing in the theatre, something that almost never happens), is a faux-happy ending for the Cheneys, in which the regular expository post-film title cards come up and the credits begin to roll, before Plemons’ character reveals that the sequence was a hoax and the family does not, in fact, “breed award-winning golden retrievers.”

- Even more unpopular than this take is in general: performances are worryingly thin right across the board. Rockwell’s half-hearted George W Bush-as-empty-Southerner is pretty terrible, although he’s obviously trying; Adams struggles to sell any scene, most of all her first and the one where she recites Shakespeare. Carell leans too hard on the eerie giggle in what’s otherwise the best major performance in this movie, while Pill and Perry are almost completely vacant. The only decent performers here are sidelined: Plemons brings a solid dose of Everyman appeal to his role as Kurt (although it’s nowhere near as good as his comic turn in Game Night); the guy who plays HW Bush is very good for the one scene he’s in; Kirk, who plays "Scooter" Libby, was good, although I spent the entire movie trying to think of where I'd seen him before. Not even Bale, by far the most talked-about part of this film, is particularly special in his role as the titular VP: it’s an impression, not a performance, with his impressive recreation of Cheney’s monotone seeming to take priority over finding any real depth in a character that badly needed some.

- By far the best thing this movie does is the reveal of who Plemons’ character is. The entire cinema audience I saw this with realised at the exact same moment (about 20 seconds before it’s announced onscreen), and the gasps were audible. By contrast, the worst thing it does is its mid-credits sequence, which made me want to kick something. (I did. Repeatedly.) Although I laughed at the line “So my ability to understand facts makes me a liberal?,” the message there was just horribly misguided.

- Anyway. Had too many thoughts to really structure this probably. I think hyper-negative takes are largely overreactions, although there are all a couple of well-argued ones: the first act is completely fine, and the self-reflexive “quirkiness” of the script won’t start grating on you until about the half-hour mark. But the final third is so unabashedly awful that I don’t see how many people genuinely love this. Maybe there’s a reading of the film as a complete comedy that I’m missing? In any case, you should probably avoid this.

MVP points to Plemons.

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