Movie review: 'Vice' a bold, bonkers portrait of Dick Cheney as master manipulator

  • Christian Bale stars as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, in "Vice."

    Christian Bale stars as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, in "Vice." Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

  • Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), left, confers with President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) in "Vice."

    Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), left, confers with President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) in "Vice." Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

 
 
Updated 12/28/2018 10:55 AM

"Vice" -- ★ ★ ★ ★

Every scene in Adam McKay's bold and bonkers biopic "Vice" radiates with the unbridled energy of an exuberant, experimental work-in-progress.

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After brilliantly dismantling America's economic meltdown from 10 years ago in his caustic comic tragedy "The Big Short," McKay investigates an even more elusive and daunting subject: how secretive businessman and Yale dropout Dick Cheney rose to political power as the U.S. vice president, portrayed as a master puppeteer pulling the strings on marionette President George W. Bush.

The chameleonic Christian Bale plays Cheney in a stunning, transformative performance that nails not only his pudgy, yet rock-solid physicality, but also Cheney's quietly breathless, serpentine vocal pattern.

Sam Rockwell portrays Bush as a cocky, drawling good ol' boy in a political playpen containing big toys he's not sure how to play with.

Steve Carell supplies sophisticated oiliness as Cheney's mentor and President Nixon's supporter Donald Rumsfeld.

Amy Adams imbues Cheney's wife, Lynne, with so much Macbethian ambition that it feels flawlessly fluid when the Cheneys lapse into literal Shakespearean prose.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This might sound like something more suited to an "SNL" skit. Yet "Vice" springboards off a dicey premise to become a daring, engaging hybrid of journalism and comic drama, entertainment that tries to explain how things happened.

About an hour into "Vice," the movie abruptly closes with a happy Hollywood ending where the Cheneys accept and love their lesbian daughter, a fair political process prevails and the end credits roll.

Not so fast.

McKay tricks us with a fake ending of what could have been, then reveals what really happened in a dead-serious black comedy that Jonathan Swift would admire.

"Vice" avoids the overt partisan attacks of a Michael Moore documentary by bending over backward (and all other ways) attempting to understand what made Dick Cheney's heart tick.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Considering Cheney has suffered five heart attacks -- and had a 2012 heart transplant (the strange basis for Jesse Plemons' inspired narrator) -- "Vice" concedes something his critics do not.

That he really has one.

• • •

Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

Directed by: Adam McKay

Other: An Annapurna Pictures release. Rated R for language, violence. 130 minutes

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