By Ann Hornaday

Washington Post

“Vice”

132 minutes

R for coarse language and some violent images

Christian Bale brings his “A” game, his “Z” game and everything in between to “Vice,” in which he inhabits former Vice President Dick Cheney down to his distinctive, sideways grimace and wheezily stentorian inhalations — vocal stylings that helped forge Cheney’s instantly recognizable image as the consummate Washington player.

It’s always deliciously entertaining to watch a great actor plunge into a role with this much brio and lack of vanity. But once the parlor game has ended, the question lingers: that commitment and uncanny technical prowess has been deployed in the service of what, exactly?

Written and directed by Adam McKay, “Vice” hews to roughly the same structure as “The Big Short,” McKay’s 2015 movie about the 2008 financial meltdown. “Vice” benefits from a more linear narrative than that film, plotting the rise of Cheney from a misdirected young man in Wyoming to one of the most notorious gray eminences in American politics. But it has the same frenetic, absurdist energy that propelled “The Big Short,” and in this case, the form feels even more queasily at odds with the content.

McKay is clearly up to something in trying to invent a new cinematic language for interpreting our recent history, a grammar that combines the pedagogical earnestness of a TED Talk and the gonzo, boundary-breaking sensibility of music videos and his own comic website, “Funny or Die.” In this case, the end result feels busily overdetermined and bluntly simplistic.

As a central character, Cheney is undeniably rich. As “Vice” gets underway, he’s a classic American lost boy, drinking and carousing until his fiancee Lynne (a blonde-bewigged Amy Adams) reads him the riot act: Get your act together, son, or this marriage is over before it begins. Thus is introduced one of McKay’s most insistent thematic threads in “Vice,” which portrays Lynne Cheney not just as a smart, sharp-eyed author and historian in her own right, but as the schemingly ambitious Lady Macbeth behind her husband’s rise.

It’s not conservative ideals but the raw pursuit of power that drives Cheney in “Vice,” which centers on Cheney’s most far-reaching role, that of vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). His moment of truth comes when he decides whether to sell out his own daughter Mary (Allison Pill) over the issue of same-sex marriage.

As with “The Big Short,” mileage will vary from viewer to viewer as to how surprising or entertaining “Vice” is, beyond the madcap flourishes of its own self-conscious style. Strip away the gimmicks and what may seem exhilaratingly brash begins to look glib, opportunistic and relatively tame. There aren’t any revelations or risky hypotheses proffered in “Vice,” just a conveniently parodic primer to remind opponents of the Bush administration why they opposed the Bush administration.

What makes “Vice” so frightening is how Cheney’s dismantling of norms like oversight and accountability obtained near-permanent purchase. But the historical long game isn’t as compelling to McKay as delivering as many kitschy, cartoonish parting shots as he can to someone who even today seems both pathologically self-serving and supremely indifferent to being liked.

Structurally, “Vice” is a mess, zigging here and zagging there, never knowing quite when to end, and when it finally does, leaving few penetrating or genuinely illuminating ideas to ponder. As a Wiki-wacky burlesque, “Vice” never achieves the Shakespearean comprehension or catharsis to which it clearly aspires, just snarky self-amusement. The cipher-like eminence at the story’s center remains stubbornly in the grays.

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