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The absurdity of venality – ‘Vice’

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If you were to make a list of real-life political figures who might make a good subject for a biopic packed with satiric elements, pitch-black humor and a liberal sprinkling of absurdism, former Vice President Dick Cheney would probably sit pretty low on it.

And yet, that’s precisely what writer/director Adam McKay has done with his new movie “Vice.” The filmmaker’s follow-up to 2015’s “The Big Short,” his biting and surprisingly impactful riff on the housing crisis of the late-00s, takes on one of the most powerful and influential – for better or worse (mostly worse) – men to hold the office of Vice President.

With a virtuoso performance from Christian Bale as Cheney and an absolutely dynamite ensemble cast, McKay treats Cheney’s calculated rise through the ranks culminating in a consolidation of political power never before seen in the office of the VP. And he does it with a depth of intelligence and razor-sharp wit, bringing together stock footage and fourth-wall-breaking internal commentary with a more-or-less straightforward look at the biographical details; the end result is one of the most thought-provoking and challenging films of the year. Not to mention one of the best.

We first meet Dick Cheney as his car drunkenly weaves along a Wyoming road in 1963. He’s a Yale dropout working as a lineman for the state, a heavy drinker whose ambition has been lost along the way. It’s only through the unrelenting expectations of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, TV’s “Sharp Objects”) that he’s able to pull himself together; his only desire is to travel whichever path pleases her.

Next, we see him as he enters into the Congressional Intern program during the Nixon years. He sees a speech by then-Representative Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, “Welcome to Marwen”) and decides that Rumsfeld is the man from whom he wishes to learn the ropes as far as how Washington works, a choice that is a good one … until Rumsfeld falls out of favor. However, Watergate opens the door for a second chance – Cheney winds up as President Ford’s Chief of Staff.

The other time period on which we focus is Cheney’s time as VP; George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, “Blue Iguana”) is running and needs someone with some solid Beltway bona fides to offset his own political shortcomings and inexperience. Cheney agrees, but on the condition that he be granted sweeping control over large swathes of executive duty – military, energy, foreign police, you name it. It’s a condition to which Bush happily agrees.

And in the midst of it all, we see Cheney’s relationship with Lynne, as well as with his daughters Liz (Lily Rabe, TV’s “American Horror Story”) and Mary (Alison Pill, “Ideal Home”); it’s in that familial relationship – particularly with his daughters – that shows him in the most humanizing light.

(Serving as narrator is a young man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons, “Game Night”) whose relationship to Cheney only becomes clear later in the narrative; no spoilers, but he plays a key part in the movie’s final stretch.)

Scattered throughout are the little touches that have become something of a signature for McKay when it comes to his more “serious” work; archival footage blended into the proceedings, a Greek chorus of sorts (a nameless Fox News anchor played by an uncredited Naomi Watts), a willingness to eschew a consistent timeline. It’s a movie that’s not quite like anything else you’ve seen.

McKay’s gift for humor is also in full effect. To be able to mine humor from moments of unrelenting bleakness is no mean feat, yet McKay finds a way. He’s got a keen eye for the underlying absurdity that often burbles just beneath the surface of grand historicity. McKay can make you laugh even as your fists clench and your bile rises at the multitude of cynical manipulations undertaken by Cheney and company.

At the film’s center is Christian Bale’s self-transformative performance as Cheney. He physically turns himself into Cheney, gaining a ton of weight and completely altering his stature and gait, while also capturing the low-key growling monotone that was Cheney’s vocal hallmark. It’s rare to see a performance that is both subtle and showy, but that’s what Bale does here. Don’t be surprised when he starts reeling in the hardware come awards season.

The supporting cast is exquisite. We’ll start with Adams, who might be the most consistently excellent actress of her generation. She continues that trend here, imbuing Lynne Cheney with an iron will and a steely resolve that gives truth to every old chestnut about what’s behind great men. Carell carries a lot of water as Rumsfeld; there’s not a ton of flash, but he’s essential. Rockwell is OUTSTANDING; his George W. Bush is a magnificent blend of father complex insecurities and outsized, unearned ego. Rabe and especially Pill are marvelous as well.

Oh, and all that leaves aside Tyler Perry (as Colin Powell), Eddie Marsan (as Paul Wolfowitz), Justin Kirk (as Scooter Libby), Shea Whigham (as Wayne Vincent) and the aforementioned Watts and Plemons. Yeah – this cast is STACKED.

“Vice” shouldn’t work. On its surface, the story of a political lifer like Dick Cheney doesn’t seem all that entertaining. And when you take into account the ongoing ramifications of his work, it gets even darker. If nothing else, you sure as hell wouldn’t guess it would work as a comedy. And yet … the banality and bleak bureaucracy of evil were never so hilarious.

[5 out of 5]

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