Reel Dad: Vice bites, explores and teaches

Wildlife - Still 1
Wildlife - Still 1

History, as we learned in school, can have a tendency to repeat. And, if we carefully study what happens in the past we can, hopefully, avoid letting it happen again.

But with a history as complicated as the narrative of the United States, side stepping a second chorus of the same song may be, as my mother would say, easier said than done.

The biting comedy Vice suggests that some of the political turmoil we now experience may have happened before or, at least, been suggested by the past. Once upon a simpler time, an ambitious politician named Dick Cheney maneuvered his career through a series of high-ranking positions before ultimately being named the vice presidential running mate for George W. Bush in 2000 after Cheney, himself, managed the selection committee.

How much of what the film suggests may have actually happened seems incidental to the questions the story asks. How this movie makes us think matters as well as how its content prompts us to take second looks at what we see today. If all this sounds dull, never fear. This film is devilishly entertaining which, actually, is no surprise since its creator, Adam McKay, also made fun of the 2008 financial crisis a few years ago with the sublime The Big Short.

Opening with a young Cheney finding himself on the wrong side of the law after a night of partying, Vice suggests that, in early years, Cheney’s ambitions may have been orchestrated off-stage by his wife, Lynne. But the man proves to be a fast learner. As the quick-to-become savvy politician navigates through the presidential administrations of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Cheney absorbs what it takes to serve a boss, advance an agenda and, when necessary, stretch the truth. Once he becomes vice president, he makes sure to know how to make the job as big as the law will permit and the circumstances demand.

Recreating any chapter of history can be a challenge on screen, especially one filled with as much nuance and suggestion as the Cheney years in power. But McKay is such a smart filmmaker, and a clever teacher, that he instinctively knows how to balance the content and the comedy, the message and the moment. He doesn’t hesitate to play with our expectations for how such a story should be told, teasing us along the way just as we begin to expect the conventional. The film captivates from its opening moments, never letting itself get caught in its own importance, yet always reminding us we are experiencing something quite meaningful.

Of course, the performances help, with Christian Bale quickly becoming an Oscar front runner for his blazing rendition of Cheney. Yes, the makeup helps, as is often the case with bio pics, but Bale never relies on the prosthetics. He delivers a multi-layered portrayal of a man who may try to bring a sense of goodness, with mixed results, to a business that can bring out the worst in everyone involved.

Yes, history can repeat itself. And, thanks to Vice, we can chuckle as we look in the rear-view mirror, perhaps too frightened, at moments, to look forward.

Film Nutritional Value: Vice

  • Content: High. No matter how you remember the years of Dick Cheney — or how you have tried to forget — the film offers an entertaining review of this chapter in history.

  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to a highly original screenplay, energetic direction and a strong cast (led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) the movie is so entertaining that you don’t realize how much you learn.

  • Message: High. While the film entertains, it has a lot to say about what may have created many of the situations we face today. And there’s no test at the end.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine a significant moment in history can prompt meaningful discussion between parents and older teenagers.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Even though the movie contains as much content as a course in school, its rich entertainment will give you and your older teenagers a lot to talk about.

Vice is rated R for language and some violent images. The film runs 2 hours, 12 minutes, and opens Dec. 25 at area theaters. 5 Popcorn Buckets. 

The Big Short hits a comic bulls-eye

Adam McKay, as he proves with Vice, has a wicked way to relive history.

And, while the economic meltdown of 2008 was no laughing matter, McKay’s The Big Short chuckles at the impact of the event and the absurdity of its secrets. As if dissecting the layers of disease, the film dares to explore what can happen when greed overwhelms common sense. And because the movie never takes itself too seriously, while fully respecting the subject matter, it makes the realities of the situation all the more frightening.

The Big Short works as a comedy because of its integrity as a drama. The screenplay by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph — based on the book by Michael Lewis — contains enough factual information to fill an economics class. But, don’t worry, there’s no test during the final credits. While the movie offers a lot of lessons about how sub-prime mortgages killed the housing market and almost destroyed the economy, it never plays as a lecture. Director McKay, who is best known for Anchorman and Talladega Nights, fills the film with so much entertaining energy that we don’t realize how much we learn. Yes, he covers all the basics of why meltdowns happen, and packages these details into short, creative segments featuring such guest stars as Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie. And, yes, he examines, in detail, what may have caused the meltdown, who was most harmed, how far its devastation would reach, and how some people made money by predicting the right things in the right places at the right times. But his movie makes us laugh because McKay never forgets we’re in a theater, not a classroom.

The Big Short’s ultimate secret may be how McKay and Randolph put character over content. Rather than try to tell the entire story of the meltdown, they focus on a how a few clever people predict and react. And, instead of starting with traditional explanations of the background, their story starts in the middle of a conversation between eccentric financial brains. Christian Bale fascinates as the eccentric genius —blind in one eye and suffering from Asperger’s syndrome — who predicts how the housing bubble will burst after he digs through thousands of real estate transactions. Steve Carrell follows his Oscar-nominated work in Foxcatcher with a devastating take on a hedge fund manager who delights at demise while sporting bad hair. John Magaro and Finn Wittrock delight as eager young investors who see potential in the crisis and wait for guidance from mentor Brad Pitt. And Ryan Gosling engages as a greedy banker who provides the narrative continuity. While we get to know how these men think, the film doesn’t explore their personal lives. These smartest guys in the room actually work. And they emerge as symbols of a system so filled with greed that it can’t contain the reach of its ambition.

What makes The Big Short last is how McKay and his cast respect the severity of the issues while making the most of how they can entertain. No degree in finance is required to find this film fascinating. The Big Short is, simply, a movie for people who love movies. And you’ll learn something, too.

The Big Short is rated R for “pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.” The film runs 130 minutes.