You can’t really fault director Adam McKay for taking something that worked once and trying it again. His 2015 film The Big Short achieved both critical and commercial success despite being centered around one of the blandest subjects imaginable — the 2008 financial crisis. The film became known for its blend of comedy, drama, unorthodox editing style, and fourth-wall breaks. So when McKay announced that his next project, Vice, would tackle the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney, there was a natural level of intrigue surrounding whether or not using The Big Short formula would produce similar results.
Vice is successful in mimicking its predecessor’s style, but style without compelling substance creates a hollow experience. The main flaw of this film is that there is nothing compelling about the story or the main character. There is no main thesis driving it other than following the events in the life of Dick Cheney. Sure, McKay makes it plainly obvious that we are not supposed to like or respect Cheney, but beyond that statement, not much more is explored. The genesis of Cheney’s thirst for power is presented as a fairly mundane moment in a marital relationship. Perhaps that is accurate, but it certainly isn’t interesting. And when the first hour of the film is spent on Cheney’s backstory and the audience STILL doesn’t feel invested in his journey from power line worker to grumbling rabble-rouser that inhabits an office at The White House, the runtime feels twice as long.
We don’t get to see Cheney as the titular Vice President until over an hour into the film. At this point, Vice shifts into high gear as it tries to cover as many milestones as possible. What it fails to do in the process is give us much new information or reasoning behind any of the events. Cheney is depicted as a form of bad that lacks complexity or motivation. He just *is* bad. And there are only a few moments where he does not come across as a monolith of lust for power. This lack of conflict is, simply, boring. Whereas The Big Short taught us about the financial meltdown, Vice is content to not teach or uncover new ground, but just hit all the main points like a PowerPoint presentation.
The unfortunate side effect of the film’s structural and story issues is that the acting performances get undercut. Bale is fantastic as Cheney and never slips out of character for even a second. If Vice was even 25% better, Bale would be a lock for an acting award, but it is very hard to win an award in a lackluster film. Amy Adams was solid, but her character was not given much of a wide berth. Steve Carell was serviceable as Donald Rumsfeld, but the real disappointment was the lack of screen time for Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush. Rockwell’s take on “Dubya” was impeccable, but with less than five minutes of screen time, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
Despite its pedigree, Vice feels more like a film from someone who saw The Big Short and tried to imitate it but didn’t really understand what made it successful. The Big Short took a boring, dense subject matter and gave it heart and emotion so that the audience could care about the characters as they learned more about the disaster affecting them. Vice never bothers to give the audience something or someone to care for. It is like watching The Big Short solely from the perspective of the CEOs of the Wall Street banks that caused the crisis.