Monday, December 17, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Vice


Prior to 2015, no one would have listed Adam McKay as one of American cinema's most prominent filmmakers. But following that year's release of the Oscar-winning "The Big Short", McKay quickly established himself as one of Hollywood's most distinctive auteurs. Building on the comedic credentials of his Will Ferrell-starring earlier work, McKay has boldly applied that sense of humor to topical dramas surrounding contemporary issues. The latest of those is "Vice", a satirical examination of the life of former US vice president Dick Cheney.

Beginning with his rowdy college years as a Yale dropout, "Vice" charts the rise and fall of Dick Cheney, whose influence as the 46th Vice President of the United States far exceeded any before him. A tale of a man's hunger for power at any costs, his career in politics is portrayed as a calculated masterplan which paid off in ways even he never anticipated. With his equally ambitious wife Lynn by his side, he weathered the storm of the American public's ever-changing mindset to position himself at the heart of the Republican party. But as he made his way to the top and exerted his power, his actions revealed a man who gradually lost his soul at the expense of his own family and the lives of citizens both at home and abroad.

As one unnamed character complains in a post-credits scene, "Vice" proudly wears its liberal bias. Its overtly comedic tone never lets us forget that the characters are meant to be ridiculed. Though the narrative's basic structure is a "greatest hits" biopic, McKay uses it as a playground for his trademark style.

Indeed, from its non-linear storytelling, to tongue in cheek asides, to the narration, the filmmaking is typically showy work destined to once again garner Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Editing. This certainly isn't your grandfather's biopic, for better or worse. As the sociopolitical issues get even more serious, the style begins to feel distracting. This is especially unfortunate in light of the rather erudite screenplay (a major contender for Best Original Screenplay), which efficiently gives the viewer an understanding of the reinforcement of the conservative ideals which laid the groundwork for the current Trump presidency. While Cheney is at the center of the story, "Vice" also serves as a scathing but entertaining review of the Republican playbook of the past few decades.

McKay's flashy style will certainly keep you glued to the screen, but the most impressive aspect of it all is the decidedly more understated lead performance by Christian Bale. In yet another incredible transformation, Bale embodies the portly physicality of Cheney. But under all the weight gain Oscar-worthy work for Best Makeup and Hairsytling, is a skillfully controlled performance. The calm growl in his voice is both magnetic and intimidating. A second Best Actor nomination for Bale is all but a certainty.

Like "The Big Short", "Vice" employs a large ensemble cast. But while Amy Adams stands out as a Best Supporting Actress candidate, most of the roles are little more than superficial cameos. And ultimately, this lack of true depth is what hampers "Vice" from being a great film. While it gives a widespread introduction to the various players in recent Republican politics, it never slows down enough to really reckon with their inner lives. At one point in the film, Bale's Cheney asks Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carell) what the Republican party believes in, to which Rumsfeld simply laughs hysterically. As you watch "Vice", it becomes clear that McKay has a similarly dismissive view of the Republican party. But considering the desperate times we live in, a more rigorous assessment would have been more impactful. And it could have made the difference between "Vice" cementing itself as a Best Picture winner instead of just a Best Picture nominee.

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