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Adam McKay Isn’t Laughing at Dick Cheney in ‘Vice’

The George W. Bush years have provided or inspired some of the filmmaker’s most indelible characters—from Ricky Bobby, to the reckless traders of ‘The Big Short,’ to Dubya himself. But the veep is no laughing matter, and that’s kind of the problem.

An illustrated still of Dick Cheney in ‘Vice’ Ringer illustration

Adam McKay is obsessed with idiocy, and he’s good at it too. Not only is he good at exposing the secret stupidity of the smartest guys in the room, he can coax out the 13-year-old boy within—and not in that nice, Steven Spielberg way. For instance: The hardest McKay has ever made me laugh is his cameo in The Other Guys, in which the director plays the leader of a group of perverted hobos known to the authorities as “Dirty Mike and the Boys.” Spotted by Will Ferrell’s hapless NYPD detective a few days after thoroughly befouling his beloved Prius, the gang beats a hasty getaway, but not before McKay’s Dirty Mike gives the boys one last instruction (“rub your dicks on the car as you run away!”) and offers an ominous farewell: “We are going to have sex in your car. ... It will happen again.”

Five years after writing and delivering these immortal lines—which I truly cannot even think about without cracking up—McKay received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, a sentence that still generates some cognitive dissonance even as the prize itself was arguably richly deserved. In truth, it wasn’t that hard to reconcile the ex–SNL head writer who created the euphemism “soup kitchen” to describe an act of group sex in a midsized Toyota sedan with the semi-radicalized writer-director who adapted Michael Lewis’s nonfiction best seller about the causes and casualties of the 2008 financial crisis. Buried in the end credits of The Other Guys is an animated video essay explaining the ins and outs of Ponzi schemes, scored to a Rage Against the Machine cover of “Maggie’s Farm”—a fusion of rap-rock semiotics more Michael Moore than Dirty Mike and the Boys.

The case for Adam McKay as the major American social-satirical filmmaker of the 21st century—not that he has a lot of rivals for the throne—has been there since long before The Big Short. It starts with the subversive subtext of Anchorman, which used the disguise of its ’70s setting and its stars’ sartorial choices (“I look good”) to cloak its commentary on a more eternal form of masculine idiocy. It was no coincidence that Ferrell’s alpha-dog body language and cadences as the vain, vacant San Diegoan newsreader Ron Burgundy recalled his appearances as George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live—a characterization honed on McKay’s watch. In a glorious three-film run, coinciding with Bush’s two terms—Anchorman, the red-state parody of Talladega Nights, and the man-child antiheroes of Step Brothers—the pair kept wringing variations on the country’s ongoing crisis of male authority. Their tactics alternated smartly between broad allegory (see Ricky Bobby’s idiotically exceptionalist credo “If you ain’t first, you’re last”), and explicit allusion (Step Brothers’ title card, which quotes the 43rd president directly: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”).

Ferrell and McKay’s commitment to the bit extended to the one-man show You’re Welcome America, which was timed in early 2009 to do double duty as a kiss-off to Dubya and an overture to the Barack Obama era. In the filmed version of You’re Welcome, you get the sense that the pair are retiring the character with a vengeance. What made The Other Guys and especially The Big Short so heartening was how they stepped into the satirical void opened up by Obama’s election, evincing a genuinely bipartisan sense of grievance rooted in skepticism about the nation’s money managers. If The Big Short’s theme could be boiled down to a Clinton-era soundbite—“It’s the economy, stupid”—the film was still ideologically adroit enough to take inventory of all the different sources of stupidity, both intellectual and moral, that contributed to what felt for many like a second Great Depression.

From the pumped-up performances by its cast of Oscar nominees to its frenzied, Oliver Stone–d editing scheme (courtesy of Hank Corwin), The Big Short had a sense of urgency and purpose that felt new for McKay. Where in the past he was content to submerge his messaging beneath layers of dumb improv and dick jokes, he was now cultivating a sensibility somewhere between the propulsive muckraking of Alan J. Pakula and the absurdist chill of Stanley Kubrick. That same tone carries over to Vice, which marries McKay’s long-standing obsession with the macho bluster and behind-the-scenes scheming that marked the Bush era with his new, more intellectually aggressive form of satire. It’s a journalistically sourced, at times startlingly abstract portrait of Dick Cheney (embodied, bald pate, belly flab and all, by Christian Bale in a Raging Bull–style physical transformation) that’s meant to serve as a condemnation of the Republican Party’s machinations over five decades. Call it All the Vice President’s Henchmen, or maybe Dirty Dick and the Boys.

It’s a potentially great marriage of a filmmaker and material, but Vice is not a particularly successful movie: It’s flawed in ways that overshadow its strengths. What’s undeniable here, as in The Big Short, is that McKay (who wrote the screenplay solo) is trying to use the mainstream bully pulpit, built off Will Ferrell being mauled by a series of wild animals, to preach against a political establishment he sees as holding his country hostage. The script’s specific angle on Cheney is that he was the fastest learner in the Nixon White House, and that he was patient enough to wait out the popular backlash against not one, but two Democratic presidents (Carter and Clinton), and then seize power as the shepherd of the Bush dynasty’s black sheep. The thesis is solid, and the canvas sufficiently epic, but the movie doesn’t work—not for lack of trying, but because, for the first time, it feels like McKay is trying too hard.

The versatility of Vice’s attack is considerable, mixing together everything from traditional biopic tropes (all given a slightly parodic visual gloss by cinematographer Greig Fraser) to SNL-style sketch comedy to literal Shakespearean asides to purely rhetorical essay-film flourishes, including a recurring visual motif of a fisherman derived from Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman’s incendiary 2008 book Angler, from which McKay cribs some of his more surreal—but supposedly authentic—vignettes.

Some of the flourishes are likably playful, like a premature end-credits scene borrowed in spirit from Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman tribute Man on the Moon; others, like the revelation of the true source of the film’s initially mysterious voice-over narration (excellently delivered by Jesse Plemons) are meant to be mind-blowing, but seem overwrought. At times, Vice is weirdly reminiscent of the work of the Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, whose attempts to skewer his country’s ruling social and religious class (most notably in the HBO series The Young Pope) congeal into a weird, unintentional celebration of the targets. Sorrentino’s artsy, opulent style can become an end in and of itself, and I’d say that same thing about McKay’s evolution into a would-be virtuoso. It’s hard to take your subjects down a peg when you’re showing off so self-consciously.

I’m not trying to chide McKay’s ambition, which, like his anger, seems very real. He’s got the chops to pull some of it off too. Still, the major problem with Vice is that it’s cut off from the true source of McKay’s potency—his sense of humor. The didactic, direct-to-camera addresses in The Big Short—i.e., the bit with Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages while lounging in a bubble bath—betrayed a trace of smugness in identifying the need to “dumb down” financial terms and systems. But the gag still had the ring of truth, because in the end the high rollers, people who were supposed to be in on the joke, turned out to be morons. The Big Short bristles with rage, but it also has some expert shtick and a few Dirty Mike and the Boys–caliber throwaway non sequiturs, like when the soundtrack inexplicably throws in the overture from The Phantom of the Opera to signify a detour to Las Vegas. The fact that I can’t explain why that detail is so funny is, paradoxically, exactly why I know that it is.

Vice is many things—too many, as I’ve already implied—but it’s not funny. Not really, anyway.

It’s certainly clever on a conceptual level, and some of its performances—particularly by the superbly well-cast Sam Rockwell doing a much subtler Dubya riff than Ferrell—are droll. But Bale, who is at once one of the most technically gifted and least light-hearted actors alive, actually gets less compelling as Cheney becomes more and more demonic, because there’s no real surprise in the characterization or the performance. The same goes for Steve Carell’s repulsive but cartoony Donald Rumsfeld (who doesn’t line up at all with the real article, as seen in Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known). Amy Adams did a much better Lady MacBeth in both Talladega Nights and The Master than as a strangely flavorless Lynne Cheney in Vice. And speaking of The Master, I think that Philip Seymour Hoffman, with his mix of gravitas and grotesqueness, would have made a great veep here—especially since he already played the factotum for David Huddleston’s priceless (and, again, superior) Cheney manque in The Big Lebowski.

Comedy is, of course, subjective, and it’s possible that some viewers will find Vice funnier than I did (just as I feel very alone in my Other Guys fan club). But for McKay to repress his basic instincts—the kind he freely indulged in his earlier, “dumber,” and better movies—in the name of Oscar-baiting strikes me as a shame. Vice’s big haul of Golden Globe nominations suggests that the Academy will be similarly forthcoming with slots, especially in a year when the Other Guys are either staunchly apolitical (A Star Is Born) or inherently problematic (Green Book). I’ve had friends complain about other things, too, like the way McKay seems to let Bush off the hook for the invasion of Iraq by depicting him as a patsy rather than the Decider, or how the script glosses over Cheney’s years at Halliburton, whether due to a lack of actionable intelligence or fears that the goings-on at an oil company would be less interesting than scenes set in the corridors of power in Washington.

These are valid points, and yet, once again, I’d probably be willing to forgive them—as well as the film’s redundancy in concluding that a guy we all already suspect to be a heartless, power-mongering monster is exactly that—if McKay managed, as usual, to locate the humor in most of the deadly sins (greed, vanity, sloth, wrath, gluttony, and so on). Around the same time that McKay and Ferrell did Anchorman, they created the website Funny or Die, now a footnote in the history of viral video, but whose name perfectly described the stakes that great satire should play by. If power is defined in many ways by humorlessness, then comedy, which offers neither reverence nor respect, ideally equals liberation. In this equation “funny or die” becomes not a consumer choice but an artistic imperative. Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and Dirty Mike and the Boys are funny, and, in their own way, life forces. Vice, which is never quite as funny—and thus never as serious—as it should be, seems strangely dead.