Imagine a no-credits screening of “Vice” for 100 people who had no idea who was playing Dick Cheney in this political satire.
I wonder how many would figure out it’s Christian Bale — tall, chiseled-cheekboned, lean, British Christian Bale — expertly capturing the look and the mannerisms and the speech patterns of the short, paunchy, balding, spectacles-wearing American politician, business exec and master manipulator.
As we’ve long known, Bale is an enormously talented Method actor who relishes the opportunity to transform himself in the name of the performance. Whether it’s dropping an alarming amount of weight or beefing up or perfecting a dialect or disappearing under wigs and facial hair and prosthetics, he’ll do whatever it takes to become the character.
In Adam McKay’s free-ranging, tone-shifting, darkly funny, super-meta, hit-and-miss, absurdist biopic “Vice,” Bale nails it as the resilient, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ruthlessly ambitious Cheney. He looks like Cheney, he talks like Cheney, he walks like Cheney and he IS Cheney.
That would be perfect for a recurring role on “Saturday Night Live” circa 2004, but in a feature-length film, Bale’s performance often comes across as more of an impersonation than a fully realized performance. He’s so dedicated to mimicking every last tic and idiosyncrasy, there are times when it feels like he’s playing to the audience instead of genuinely interacting with other people in the room.
There are also times when Bale is absolutely brilliant and hilarious and stunningly effective. Like the film itself, the performance is sometimes great and sometimes so deliberately outlandish, it feels like an Oliver Stone Lite production.
Writer-director McKay, who struck comedic gold with classic Will Ferrell vehicles such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” and then elevated his game with “The Big Short” (winning the Academy Award along with his co-writer for best adapted screenplay), doubles down on the flights of fancy and stylized storytelling devices he employed in the latter film. About halfway through the movie, he even indulges in an alternative universe version of Cheney’s story that has him retiring as a wealthy businessman and enjoying a quiet, controversy-free life filled with fishing and family.
But then it’s back to reality — or at least this deliberately farcical take on real-world, globally impactful events that were often bizarre and outrageous and infuriating and horrifyingly tragic in and of themselves without embellishment.
In the relatively conventional early sequences set in the early 1960s, “Vice” reminds us young Dick Cheney was a party animal and aimless screw-up, much like the young George W. Bush.
After flunking out of Yale and returning home to Wyoming, Cheney found work as a lineman, spent nearly every night getting drunk and got busted twice for DUIs — at which point his smart, no-nonsense, ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams) gave him an ultimatum, saying either he would clean up his act and making something of himself, or she would be gone.
Boom! Within a decade, Cheney is in Washington, D.C., hitching his political wagon to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). He maneuvers his way into becoming White House Chief of Staff in the Ford administration; six-time congressman for Wyoming and Secretary of Defense for most of President George H.W. Bush’s term before leaving politics to become chairman and CEO of Halliburton Co.
“Vice” tracks these developments — and Cheney’s return to the political arena as W’s VP — in crazy-quilt, time-hopping fashion.
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Jesse Plemons plays a working-class everyman who serves as the direct-to-camera narrator of the story and seems to have zero connection to Cheney’s life — until we finally learn how their paths cross. Naomi Watts is a cable news anchor who addresses us directly to discuss the madness and corruption behind certain world-changing events in the aftermath of 9/11.
We get a steady stream of cameos from an all-star gallery of gifted performers, some of them straining to execute plausible facial expressions beneath all the makeup and prosthetics, as Cabinet members and political operatives and diplomats. Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and so on and so on.
Sam Rockwell is a hoot as George W. Bush, who is all too eager to accept Cheney’s proposition the vice-president take charge of the complicated and boring stuff like foreign policy and budgetary concerns and intelligence, so the president can focus on more important things like, I don’t know, throwing out ceremonial first pitches.
McKay chooses to skewer Cheney by tickling him with a feather. (Even Cheney’s multiple heart attacks are played mostly for laughs, although there’s something almost endearing about Cheney’s low-key way of announcing to the room there’s a problem, as if he just spilled coffee on his tie.)
Still, it’s an almost wall-to-wall pummeling of Cheney, save for the scenes depicting him as a devoted husband — and a father who reacts to his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) coming out as a lesbian by embracing her and saying he loves her and he’ll always be there for her.
As McKay acknowledges in the introduction, Dick Cheney remains an enigma after all these years. I’m not sure “Vice” sheds any new light on the Cheney story. It places him in a spotlight that continually changes colors and tones but is almost never flattering.
Annapurna Pictures presents a film written and directed by Adam McKay. Rated R (for language and some violent images). Running time: 132 minutes. Opens Tuesday at local theaters.