"Between the idea and the reality ... falls the shadow," T.S. Eliot wrote in his 1925 poem "The Hollow Men." Scholars have variously conjectured that he was talking about the Treaty of Versailles, modern man's crisis of faith, even his wife's extra-marital high jinks with Bertrand Russell. There is consensus that he wasn't talking about movie trailers — although, I submit, his immortal lines are equally applicable to that subject.
Exhibit A: the shady trailers and TV spots now playing for Adam McKay's Dick Cheney biopic, Vice. The writer-director, it must be said, has done some pretty immortal work himself. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers are comedy classics. McKay's first foray into more serious and topical terrain, 2015's The Big Short (for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), wasn't too shabby, either. Which is why it's such a disappointment that his second foray is.
Don't believe a thing you see on television or online suggesting that Vice is comparable to The Big Short in insight, ingenuity or illumination. It's superficial and super vacuous, a lazily conceived rehash of relatively recent headlines about bad-news Beltway types most of us are still trying to forget. Moreover, it fails to tell us a single thing we didn't already know about any of them.
Christian Bale and lots of prosthetics play Cheney, from his days as a drunken Wyoming hell raiser through his ascension to Washington, D.C.'s halls of power. Amy Adams is frumped-up but unremarkable in the role of Lynne Cheney, the brains of the outfit in McKay's telling. The film takes us through the milestones in the career bureaucrat's rise: Cheney's introduction to mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) when the latter was in Congress; his years on the periphery of the Nixon and Ford administrations; and ultimately his dance with Dubya (Sam Rockwell), who begs him to be his running mate in 2000.
McKay deploys a series of ham-fisted devices designed to make his slog through history appear flashier and more artful than it is. Footage of Cheney fly-fishing, for example, is interspersed with his negotiations with Bush (he reels him in — get it?). Fake end credits roll midway through, doing little besides disrupting the flow. Most egregious is the bit when Dick and Lynne engage in an excruciatingly extended Shakespearean dialogue.
The filmmaker throws gimmick after arbitrary gimmick at the wall. Nothing sticks. Worse, nothing of consequence is examined, explained or excoriated.
You'd never guess that based on Vice's trailers and TV ads. The original versions debuted in October and were nearly as lackluster and low-energy as the film. But then McKay caught a break. On December 6, those loose cannons at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association deluged the movie with Golden Globe nominations and, soon after, new versions of the promos appeared, teasing what seemed to be a completely different picture.
Out were the ho-hum plot points. In were sound bites filled with snap, crackle and pop. Bale's Cheney was reedited into a sneering mastermind hissing zinger after sardonic zinger. Scenes were sliced, diced and rearranged. Shots and dialogue not even in the film were used to create the illusion that Vice is fast-moving fun, devilishly clever stuff just like The Big Short. More like the Big Sleep.
"Between the idea and the reality..." The next time an ad for Vice comes on, bear in mind that what you're watching is some marketing shark's idea. The reality is 132 minutes of missed opportunities.