Vice

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VICE, comic bi­o­graph­i­cal drama, rated R; Regal Sta­dium 14, The Screen, Vi­o­let Crown; 3 chiles

Try hav­ing a lit­tle fun with a grim sub­ject, and the knives come out. Crit­ics have come down on Adam McKay (The Big Short) for triv­i­al­iz­ing the mon­strous legacy of Amer­ica’s Darth Vader, for­mer vice-pres­i­dent Dick Cheney. Or, if your taste runs that way, for the un­seemly lam­poon­ing of a great Amer­i­can states­man.

But the goofy side of McKay’s por­trait of the man who rose out of a boozy gut­ter to be­come the most pow­er­ful se­cond banana in our na­tion’s his­tory is there to coun­ter­point a deadly se­ri­ous story. In his em­bod­i­ment of Cheney, Chris­tian Bale is noth­ing short of jaw-drop­ping. It’s not just the weight he gains dur­ing the course of the pic­ture, it’s ev­ery­thing about him — the slouch, the walk, the tilt of the head, the hunch of the shoul­ders, the sneer, the stare, the dark cloud. He em­bod­ies his sub­ject so thor­oughly it’s creepy.

We dis­cover Cheney in Wyoming in 1963 as a young ne’er-do-well, a drunk, a carouser, a col­lege dropout with no ap­par­ent am­bi­tion or fu­ture. He would seem to be a guy with noth­ing go­ing for him.

But he does have one great as­set, and that is his fi­ancée Lynne, played with padded steel by Amy Adams. Lynne reads her man the riot act from the per­spec­tive of an am­bi­tious woman in an era when the only re­al­is­tic path for­ward for a woman was to pick the right horse. She digs her spurs into Dick, and he sham­bles for­ward, cleans up his act, and some­how winds up in Wash­ing­ton as an empty ves­sel who hitches his wagon to the cart of a po­lit­i­cally savvy jokester named Don­ald Rums­feld (Steve Carell). It’s not long be­fore Cheney has pulled even with, and then sur­passed, his men­tor.

It’s when Bush the Younger is be­ing steered toward the pres­i­dency that Cheney seizes his ul­ti­mate op­por­tu­nity. Dubya (an en­ter­tain­ing Sam Rock­well) wants his dad’s for­mer sec­re­tary of de­fense as his run­ning mate. McKay has a good time in­dulging in the metaphor of Cheney the fly fish­er­man, play­ing the young can­di­date like a large­mouth bass.

The movie doesn’t have a lot of love for the man who gave us the Iraq War, shot his hunt­ing buddy in the face, and in­spired a whole genre of black hu­mor when he re­quired a heart trans­plant. But he does get credit for be­ing a lov­ing fam­ily man, who re­sponded with com­pas­sion when his daugh­ter Mary (Ali­son Pill) came out as gay.

McKay laces the story to­gether with com­men­tary from an oc­ca­sion­ally seen nar­ra­tor ( Jesse Ple­mons) who de­liv­ers a sur­prise twist. The big­gest missed op­por­tu­nity is fail­ing to ex­plore the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cheney and Bush in any depth. And some­times the hu­mor may go a lit­tle over the top, as when Rums­feld col­lapses with help­less laugh­ter when his young staffer asks him what they be­lieve in. But much of the film is nee­dle-sharp. And driven by Bale’s ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance, it hits with the force of a weapon of mass in­struc­tion. — Jonathan Richards

Weapons of mass cor­rup­tion: Amy Adams, Chris­tian Bale, Sam Rock­well, and An­drea Wright

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