From the director and co-writer of "The Big Short," "Vice" entertains but its light, sardonic approach is a tricky match with its subject matter. Rating 2.5 stars out of 4.
If you go to “Vice” expecting a conventional movie biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), you will be discombobulated, to say the least. Writer/director Adam McKay, the man who turned the 2008 stock-market crash into a fast-talking fun-house ride in “The Big Short,” is at it again. “Vice,” the sort of movie that’ll give you whiplash if you look at it too closely, takes a similarly scattershot, jokey, darker-than-dark-comedic approach. The tone is set immediately: An opening title card tells us that the film is “a true story, or as true as it can be. We did our [insert expletive the Times won’t print] best.”
Lurching forward and backward in time — and in and out of reality — “Vice” covers Cheney’s life and career from his tempestuous late youth (he flunked out of Yale and did some drunken driving) to his 70s, with particular emphasis on the George W. Bush presidency years. And it’s uncanny in one aspect at least: Bale, with the help of prosthetics, looks so much like Cheney he’ll give you the shivers, particularly with the malevolent purr of his voice, and his way of baring his lower row of teeth in a very distant relative of a grin. He’s lit like a supervillain, and essentially emerges as one here: a power-crazed politician willing to sacrifice anything — even his own family members — for his empty goals.
“Vice” is quite watchable; it zips along quickly, and the cast around chameleon Bale is strong. Amy Adams, vivid as always, is Cheney’s Lady Macbethish wife Lynne — the point is hammered home by having the two of them, in bed, suddenly break into faux Shakespeare. (It’s a funny bit, but McKay hits it too hard and lets it go on too long.) Sam Rockwell finds a funny, relaxed folksiness in George W. Bush, and Tyler Perry is effective as a concerned Colin Powell. But the film’s light, sardonic approach is a tricky match with its subject matter: 9/11; power-crazed, empty-souled politicians; dark ambitions. It’s entertaining, sure, but a lot of us might not feel like laughing.
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★★½ “Vice,” with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe. Written and directed by Adam McKay. 132 minutes. Rated R for language and some violent images. Opens Dec. 25 at multiple theaters.