With movies you like or love, you tend to best remember their strongest elements, and with movies you dislike or despise, you tend to immediately recall their failings. That's why I'm currently finding it hard to reconcile my feelings toward the Dick Cheney bio-pic Vice, because while I had a lot of fun at the time, it seems easier, several days after my screening, to pinpoint what doesn't work over what does. Sure, Christian Bale delivers a fascinating, transformative performance as Cheney, and writer/director Adam McKay's filmmaking has energy and attitude to spare. Does that matter all that much if, in hindsight, I'm finding myself increasingly distracted and bothered by Vice's glibness, shallowness, and relentless display of snark? Did I, when all was said and done, really like the movie, or was I merely intoxicated by its enticing new-car smell?
McKay's previous directorial outing was 2015's The Big Short, a comedy that attempted, with surprising success, to explore and explain the 2008 financial crisis through the aid of cheeky celebrity cameos (ah, Anthony Bourdain …), frequent shatterings of the fourth wall, and title cards of sometimes questionable authenticity. (“Truth is like poetry. And most people f---ing hate poetry.” – overheard at a Washington D.C. bar.) These sorts of risky, nontraditional techniques served The Big Short remarkably well. Yet I'll admit to a twinge in my gut, a mild foreboding, when Vice opened with an irreverent title card of its own calling the film “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history. But we did our f---ing best.”
On-screen, as should go without saying in this R-rated outing, those blanks in “f---ing” are filled in, and for the next two-plus hours, McKay's latest will attempt to fill in the blanks on roughly a half-century in Cheney's life, from his days as a drunken, 20-something reprobate in Wyoming to his years of retirement after serving as George W. Bush's two-term vice president. That “f---ing,” however, stuck in my head. On the surface, its employment was nothing but a bit of casually profane humor in the Big Short style – an invitation to laugh, with incredulity and shock, at the film's presentation of historic events that in real life weren't the least bit funny. But the curse word also hinted at a preemptive defensiveness on McKay's part, as well as an anger that seemed barely contained even before we'd been shown anything to be angry about. Heaven knows McKay has the right to be pissed about the evils he believes Cheney unleashed upon the world, and watching the film, the director does appear convinced that the blame for all of our current turmoil rests at Cheney's feet. Yet anger can be a blinding emotion – one that supersedes sound judgment – and from his opening title card on, McKay's fury and exasperation are routinely showcased in ways that prove detrimental, particularly in regard to the film's lack of motivational complexity.
After the young Cheney endures his second arrest for drunk driving and a severe scolding from his longtime sweetheart Lynne (Amy Adams), he vows to never let her down again, and, in the movie's telling, never does. After asking his White House mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) what, exactly, their Nixon administration believes in, Rumsfeld cackles with contempt, and Cheney proceeds to seek and obtain power with a similar lack of moral consideration. After convincing George W. (Sam Rockwell) to grant him unchecked authority over nearly every domain of the presidency, Bush obliges and not once questions either Cheney's decisions or his methods. Can any of this be remotely true? It certainly doesn't feel true, because in presenting the simplest possible answer for every Cheney-based “how” or “why,” McKay badly undermines Vice's claims of veracity. The Big Short went into scrupulous detail about how the global market eventually went belly-up. But covering even broader terrain here, McKay consistently goes for the easiest of explanations. Dick Cheney was a monster. Lynne Cheney was Lady Macbeth. Rumsfeld was a clown. Bush was a dolt. Even if your sympathies and prejudices align with McKay's, it oftentimes feels like we're being sold a bill of goods.
In one fantasy sequence involving Alfred Molina as a waiter at a posh D.C. restaurant, characters are even literally sold a bill of goods, with the server pointing out such Guantanamo Bay delicacies as “enhanced interrogation” that Cheney and his associates will surely want to try. (Surveying the menu after Molina's nightly-special spiel, Cheney grins and says, inevitably, “We'll have it all.”) Yet while gambits such as these gave comic texture to The Big Short's mostly realistic presentation – and also provided valuable Wall Street for Dummies insight – they're nowhere near as effective in Vice. In theory, the idea of Dick and Lynne giving voice to their White House machinations in Shakespearean verse is an inspired one, as is McKay's running of the end credits mid-film, when the Cheneys, and the American people, might still have expected a Happily Ever After. But nearly every sardonic narrative detour here runs on long past the point of the joke being made, and several of the movie's visual motifs – principally the images of Cheney fly-fishing and a tower built of teacups – are so protracted that “We get it!” starts to feel like the only proper response.
Still, you know, the movie is fun – if, for me, demonstrably less fun in retrospect than it was almost a week ago. By now, it's no longer newsworthy when Bale gains (or loses) a ton of weight for a role. Yet watching the actor vanish into Dick Cheney's oversize frame remains a thrill, especially with his spot-on vocal and physical mimicry augmented by a horrifyingly mischievous gleam in his eye suggesting both the man's delight in his decades-long con and his disbelief that anyone could be fool enough to buy it. (Bale's most memorable, wonderful moment comes in a three-second fantasy aside, when Cheney can no longer hide his contempt for George W. as the future world leader giddily devours his barbecued chicken.) Impossible task though it is, Bale also does what he can to evince sympathy for this particular devil, and Carell even does him one better, turning the initially sleazy Rumsfeld, of all people, into an ultimately poignant and haunted presence utterly shafted in Cheney's power-mad quest.
Entertaining though he is, Rockwell is stuck playing a cartoonish imagining of our former president, and although Adams is effective, and marvelous when goading Dick into romantic concessions and political gains, the role of Lynne Cheney doesn't allow her to do anything here that she didn't do before, and better, in 2012's The Master. (If Adams receives her widely predicted Oscar for this, she'll join Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet among recently “overdue” thespians who finally win for one of their least-interesting portrayals.) But Vice is almost ridiculously stocked with other familiar actors delivering sharp turns as familiar Cheney-era figures: Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, Don McManus as David Addington, Lily Rabe and Alison Pill as Liz and Mary Cheney. And while not all of McKay's diversions work, the one featuring Jesse Plemons as our everyman (and long-unidentified) narrator really does, his ultimate purpose in the tale as heartbreaking as it is metaphorically perfect. There are plenty of reasons to not like Vice. I'm not entirely sure there are enough of them to not see it in the first place.
HOLMES & WATSON
Before he earned widespread acclaim and an Academy Award for The Big Short, Vice's Adam McKay was best-known for directing endearingly goofy comedies such as Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, both of which co-starred Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. The actors have consequently reunited for Holmes & Watson, a lightweight buddy slapstick that lists McKay among its producers. But clearly, the times they have a-changed. Because while Ferrell's and Reilly's previous pairings were met with considerable audience goodwill and adequate-enough reviews, their new film received a CinemaScore grade of “D+” and critiques that could be charitably described as hostile, if not downright hateful. What, may I ask, is the deal? Have we collectively grown so far past this sort of big-studio silliness that we can't recognize Holmes & Watson for the blessedly inconsequential nonsense it is, especially with that lumbering behemoth Aquaman inching up on $200 million?
To be sure, writer/director Etan Cohen, whose camera seems almost always in the wrong place at the wrong time, appears to be no talent-match for McKay, and his farcical scenario for the legendary Arthur Conan Doyle characters is dopey in the extreme. (Key to the problem: Is this Sherlock meant to be a bumbling buffoon, or rather a deeply intelligent chap who merely plays the buffoon, like an early-20th-Century version of Peter Falk's Columbo?) I'd be lying, however, if I didn't admit to frequently giggling during this thing. Reilly develops a winning rapport with Rebecca Hall as that rarest of Edwardian creatures – a female doctor – while Ferrell trades silly faces and romantic ickiness with Lauren Lapkus as an adult woman raised by cats. Despite Ralph Fiennes' comedic skills going largely untapped as this film's Moriarty, there are amusing contributions by Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Laurie, and those wonderfully cantankerous The Trip co-stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. And while I'll agree that, beyond the Battleship and Ghost gags that are way past their expiration dates, several bits are achingly repetitive, ill-considered, or both (with the Trump-bashing not received at all well at my screening), I happily endured them for brights spots such as the nifty young-Sherlock prelude, and the unexpectedly dark Titanic kicker, and Reilly sending Hall a drunken “intoxigram.” Plus, the leads' repartee is so polished yet breezy, and their British accents so delightfully off – especially Ferrell's thick-tongued pronunciation of “America” – that they earn chuckles even when their material isn't helping them, as it frequently isn't. Holmes & Watson is by no means great, or even good. But with Ferrell and Reilly having such an obviously terrific time together, I would've sat through an even longer presentation just to delight in their company. Has anyone thought of asking these guys to host this year's Oscars?
Mary Queen of Scots meets Mean Girls. The Crown meets All About Eve. Upstairs, Downstairs meets Single White Female. There are all sorts of ways to cattily objectify the experience of director Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite. But none of them comes close to describing the effects of this savagely smart, brutal, hilarious, moving saga about British monarch Queen Anne and her warring aides and enablers – a venom-dripping period comedy that makes you gasp with horror one moment and roar with disbelief the next, and that leaves you profoundly unsettled yet wildly entertained. Though the film is currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene, a friend and I caught the latest by The Lobster director Lanthimos over the Christmas break sitting beside a couple who reflexively talked back to the screen and loudly consumed what must've been a seven-course meal with their mouths open. We still had a blast.
Olivia Colman plays Anne in the film's 1711 setting – a benevolent, borderline-mad ruler all but undone by the pain of gout, the political aspirations of her male subordinates, and the debilitating grief of birthing 17 babies who never lived to infancy. (As a memorial, Anne allows 17 pet rabbits to frequently roam free in her bedroom.) Rachel Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Anne's devoted friend from childhood, trusted ally, and secret lover. Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a former lady of prominence now reduced to working as a chambermaid, and a world-class schemer who carefully worms her way into Sarah's good graces, followed by the queen's. With its triangle of power, and potential power, firmly established, The Favourite proceeds to explore themes of corruption and control as Sarah and Abigail fight for the monarch's attentions, and what's especially astounding is how thoroughly your allegiances shift from scene to scene, and sometimes even from beat to beat.
Sarah's initially foul treatment of Abigail, and occasionally of Anne, seems loathsome until you realize that she's far more aware of the situation's dynamics than you are. Abigail appears wholly empathetic until you realize the depths she's willing to sink to in order to regain her former status. And poor, blinkered, pathetic Anne comes off as blithely indifferent to the Machiavellian intrigue surrounding her until her moments of startling lucidity, when you're momentarily able to identify the woman's frailty as a guise masking the stubbornest of wills and a naked, heartbreaking desire to simply be loved. (The men in Lanthimos' tale – incisively played by the likes of Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Mark Gatiss, and James Smith – are mere pawns deluded into thinking they're knights.) With award shows looming, you'll definitely be hearing more about The Favourite in the next couple of months, to say nothing of hearing more from me when the film lands right near the top of my personal Favorites of 2018 list in a week or so. For now, though, simply know that Lanthimos' direction, culminating in his unforgettable collage of human faces and bunny bodies, is extraordinary; that the period detail is exquisite; that the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is juicy and eminently quotable; that the rarely better Weisz and the never-better Stone are magnificent; and that Colman is less magnificent than instantly iconic. In a film of wondrous pleasures, if sometimes wondrously nasty ones, she's my absolute favourite.
BEN IS BACK
All told, between the Quad Cities and Iowa City, our area's movie theaters did a remarkable job this year of securing bookings for nearly everything with Academy Awards potential outside of Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk (still on the horizon) and a handful of foreign, documentary, and animated titles. One we're still waiting for, however, is writer/director Peter Hedges' Ben Is Back, which finds Lucas Hedges' recovering drug addict returning home for Christmas after 77 days of rehab-facility sobriety, and Julia Roberts, as Ben's mom, terrified that he'll start using again if she lets him out of her sight. Like The Favoruite, I caught this family drama in Chicagoland over the holidays, and ordinarily I'd wait to review the film until it finally made its way here. Its meager big-market box office, though, doesn't necessarily make a local engagement a given even with Roberts as its headliner. So I hope I'll be forgiven for praising the film despite it not currently enjoying an area release. The movie itself may occasionally falter, but Roberts and Lucas Hedges (Peter's son) never once do.
Given that Peter Hedges' most recent writing/directing offering was 2012's The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which easily stands as one of the most obnoxious things I've suffered through all decade, I wasn't altogether surprised when Ben Is Back's plotting went somewhat off the rails. What started as a transfixing character study, unfortunately, morphed into a rather standard beat-the-clock thriller involving loads of narrative contrivances, eyebrow-raising coincidences, and, for Timothy Green-like maudlin excess, the kidnapping of an incredibly cute dog. What astonished me, however, was how beautifully and soulfully the leads made even the weak material play. (Talents such as Courtney B. Vance, Rachel Bay Jones, and Kathryn Newton – Lucas Hedges' screen sister both here and in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – have very fine moments, too, but this is solely the Julia-and-Lucas show.)
As she also demonstrated in the sensational Amazon Prime series Homecoming, Roberts has become miraculously adept at knowing when and how to incorporate her famously blinding grin for dramatic purpose. Like many of the performer's screen protagonists, Roberts' Holly Burns, here, is no-nonsense yet funny and stable yet recognizably screwed up – if Roberts hadn't agreed to the role, producers would've unquestionably searched far and wide for a Julia Roberts type instead. But whether tenderly clutching to Ben as if for dear life or profanely excoriating an Alzheimer's-ridden doctor for his negligence, Roberts digs so deeply into Holly's maternal love that the role is unimaginable without her, and never more so than when she's flashing that 1,000-kilowatt smile to cover her escalating panic. (That smile proves completely devastating when, in the minutes following Ben's arrival, Holly maintains it while clearing out her medicine cabinet and hiding her jewelry.) And as if we needed more proof after Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird, Three Billboards, Mid90s, and Ben Erased – plus, by all accounts, his current starring role opposite Elaine May in Broadway's The Waverly Gallery – Lucas Hedges is a once-in-a-generation talent. (Or twice, i.e. Timothée Chalamet.) Alternately charming, cagey, hopeful, and desperately sad, the young actor would be a revelation if he hadn't already been revelatory so many times over the past two years, and I'm looking forward to revisiting his latest film just to see Lucas' indescribably forlorn response to hearing “O Holy Night” during a Christmas pageant. With or without Oscar recognition, here's hoping that Ben Is Back soon makes its way to a theater near us.