Wednesday, December 26, 2018

No Virtue: VICE

Vice is a smug smirk with a burn-it-all-down cynicism fitted to the times. That may make it fleetingly, darkly satisfying from time to time. But it certainly doesn't make it a good movie. As written and directed by Adam McKay, the film is a bleakly jokey docudrama that rehearses a few decades of GOP governance, culminating in the disastrous George W. Bush administration. It does so through the life of one Dick Cheney, a man who has used a lifetime of proximity to power to make the world a worse place every chance he got. He, and his many helpers and collaborators, destabilized the Middle East, expanded the surveillance state, grew the size of the executive branch and judicial department’s unchecked power, loosened environmental regulations, coaxed partisan rancor and propaganda apparatus, ran an oil company, increased inequality, and quickened the advance of global warming. As played by an astonishingly transformed Christian Bale -- his often trim and muscular frame bloated and balding, shrinking in on itself even as he swaggers with confidence of a power-hunger greed monster convinced he's on the winning team -- the movie takes great pains to hit the major points of the biography and controversy sections of his Wikipedia page. He's up to no good, and the movie rattles about with all the energy of someone excitedly repeating someone else's muckraking. At least it has a point of view and digs in hard. No joke that the movie takes a late beat to underline the irony that at a certain point Dick became literally heartless. We see the heart slowly cooling and drying on a surgical table. It's wickedly apt.

Yet overall it is as jittery and anxious as McKay's prior irritating sojourn into recent history, The Big Short. It's wall to wall snarky voice over and chatty collages of contemporaneous pop culture and news detritus. Full of convincing performances doing a mix of mind-boggling transformative impersonations and recognizable faces doing re-enactments, Sam Rockwell does a fine W, while Steve Carell yucks it up three notches from Brick as Rumsfeld, Amy Adams clenches tight for Lynne Cheney, and LisaGay Hamilton and Tyler Perry nicely underplay Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell. But it never escapes a feeling that it's manic sober Drunk History or an extended collision between the History Channel and SNL. Free floating derision and contempt is a wail of helpless fury at the steady erosion of our culture, a chain of events that led us almost inevitably to our current low point. But a checklist of scandals is an unsatisfying replacement for analysis. Instead of using Bale's transformation for real psychological profiling or vivid melodrama or jangled political despair, it's simply a sloppy, thin, chuckling, hectoring, ain't-this-just-the-way superficial bromide. Only occasionally does it whip around to sting the audience — the last line of the picture, quipped in a credit cookie, is the worst condescension, so you might already be out the door. Elsewhere it assumes you’re outraged already about this recent history or, if not, need only a small nudge of education or reminding to get there. It is an attempted dark comic exorcism that leaves the demons in the plain sight.

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