Movies

Vice Was the Biggest Disappointment of the Year

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 8.

Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams stars as Lynne Cheney in Adam McKay’s Vice.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Hi,

Cinematically speaking, Vice was probably the biggest disappointment of the year for me. I know a lot of people were dubious about this movie before it came out, but I was not one of them. I think Adam McKay is a treasure. Seriously, look at his filmography as a director; he helmed pretty much all of the good Will Ferrell movies and none of the bad ones. And I loved The Big Short. And a couple of years ago, when someone asked me if there was one actor out there whom I would see in anything, no matter what, I realized my answer was Christian Bale.

The first time I saw Vice, I thought it was a complete disaster. At times, I wondered if McKay wasn’t done editing the thing yet—if maybe he was rushing to meet a release date, perhaps to help save the struggling Annapurna from a grim financial fate. The movie posits that Dick Cheney didn’t believe anything—that he was only interested in power for power’s sake—and while that’s an interesting notion, the near-Trotskyite zealotry of his time in office and his alliance with the neoconservative cause would suggest otherwise. A change clearly came over this man, but the film is so uninterested in exploring anything resembling an actual person that the transformation doesn’t register.

There are fascinating threads in there—about the theory of the unitary executive, for example, and about the disconnect between politicians and the battlefield in the modern era—but the movie has no focus, so everything just hangs there. I could have done with approximately 80 percent fewer cutaways to belabored fishing metaphors and score settling with the Antonin Scalias and Roger Aileses of the world, and 80 percent more follow-through on Cheney’s personal journey. The movie hand-holds us through certain events of recent history and yet barely mentions the first Gulf War—which is when much of the country first met Cheney, and the results of which had a direct impact on the ensuing Iraq war.

I’ve now seen Vice three times. I do think there’s a less discombobulated, more engaging version of the movie in there, somewhere, and it occasionally peeks through. But—and here comes the real heartbreaker for me—I don’t think anything can fix Bale’s performance. He and the makeup team have done all the hard work to make him look exactly like Dick Cheney. But it all feels so robotic, like I’m watching the most expensive SNL skit ever or maybe an immaculately produced, high-end Christmas version of The Simpsons“Rappin’ Ronnie Reagan” tape. Yes, yes, Dick Cheney does Bale’s soft, monotone growl thing a lot—but he does more, too! We sat through eight years of the guy as vice president, watching him on TV, and he’s clearly got more emotional and vocal range than the sketch-comedy imitation Vice presents us with. That’s a choice. A poor choice. Obviously, some are down with it, since it looks like Bale is headed for an Oscar nomination. But I was flabbergasted. Oh well.

As for Roma, I wasn’t left cold by it, though I maybe wasn’t quite the emotional wreck others were. But I maintain that this is at least partly intentional. Cuarón’s stylistic conceit here is both immersive and alienating. He keeps Cleo at the center of his frame, but we often get obstructed views of her, and much of the film is played out in long shots. And almost everything we know about her is through interactions with the people around her, in which she is usually put in an “inferior” position, whether as a servant, or an employee, or a woman, or a mother-to-be.

Toward the end, as Cleo finally becomes the one in need of help—the person who must now become the center of attention, if even for a little bit—the movie acknowledges this: The most emotional moment for me wasn’t the childbirth scene, or the climactic sequence with the beach and the waves (which is nevertheless wonderful), but rather the bit right when she is whisked away at the hospital. The grandmother is asked about Cleo’s middle name, and her age, and her birthdate, and she has no idea.

For me, Roma as a film is essentially that exchange writ large. Its protagonist, in that sense, is Cuarón himself: It’s as if he’s trying to re-create the era of his childhood, in all its anguished detail, with all its political and social and personal textures—and then searching desperately through these images and environments to locate and understand this woman who meant so much to him, but whom he took for granted.

But of course, that’s just one take. Perhaps I’m revealing the limits of my own vision by reading the film in this way.

Regarding Kam’s rant about the best way to see movies: When Roma came up after that last round of exchanges, I decided to watch it again. The first time I’d seen it was streaming off a link—I had to vote on it for an awards-nomination jury and hadn’t gotten invites to any screenings—and I could tell I was missing something. (I also fell asleep for a bit.) The second time I saw it was in a screening room, where I could better appreciate the movie’s technical accomplishment, including its mind-blowing sound work.

But I still felt like I needed to see it again. I’m in Florida as I write this, staying in an old motel that’s basically a series of small rooms off a little courtyard. There’s no lobby, which is where I would usually work at night, in order to not wake my family up. So here, I take my laptop and sit in a little gazebo in the middle of the courtyard—it’s the only spot with an electrical outlet. And that’s where I watched Roma off a screener DVD at midnight last night. About 30 feet behind me were some old-timers lounging in some deck chairs, smoking a ridiculous amount of weed, which wafted my way. They could see my screen, so during the naked martial arts scene, I demurely skipped ahead a bit. At one point, a lizard hopped across my laptop. Halfway through, one side of my headphones died, so I could only hear half the audio.

And yet, this might have been the best viewing of Roma I’ve had yet.

Now, I am someone who proselytizes for the theatrical experience every chance I get. And I too make a point of seeing things in theaters whenever I can. Being a parent, I’m usually at the movies at least once a weekend with my son, spending an ungodly amount of money on Ubers and Fandango fees and reserved seats and buckets of popcorn and Icees so we can sit in a darkened room watching a movie screen, with trailers and dumb Geico ads and everything. (Of course, it’s usually a movie screen with absurdly shitty projection, because even as America’s exhibitors will splurge on fancy adjustable seats and state-of-the-art Cheeto-covered popcorn, they can’t be bothered to make sure their films are being shown properly. I digress.)

But I’m also a child of the home-video era (like the rest of you, I assume) and a lot of my cinematic education happened via VHS tapes. And often not just VHS tapes, but poorly dubbed, 10th-generation bootleg VHS tapes, usually recorded off inferior copies and prints. My favorite film of all time is Barry Lyndon, one of those movies that people like me are usually petulantly exhorting everyone else to see in a cinema. But my first and best viewing of Barry Lyndon—the one that changed my life—happened on a teeny-tiny monitor, off an old, not-very-good laserdisc, in a rickety wooden cubicle at my university’s Film Studies Center, with a fluorescent light overhead. My other favorite film is The Conformist, which I first saw off an old, dubbed VHS. Cinema, like life, finds a way.

Even so, I think there is something spiritually distinctive about the cinematic experience. I believe that a switch flips in our brains when we know something is a movie—as opposed to, say, TV. We watch it differently, even if we’re watching it on a laptop in the middle of nowhere, or a tiny television in a room full of people who are doing something else. (I’m still horrified whenever I ask TV-writer friends how they find the time to watch so many shows, and some confess that they often do so while they’re paying bills, or they’re at the gym, or whatever. I’m not sure I could watch a film that way and still feel like I’ve properly seen it.) And even if we’re spending less and less time in movie theaters, the idea of the theater is still in some ways the psychic source of the cinematic experience. If we actually lose that idea, then we will eventually lose the whole thing—and the next thing you know, there will be laws against turning off the motion smoothing on your parents’ TV.

Maybe it’s a generational thing; it probably is.

So here’s my paranoid rant: In an age of tech-enabled convenience and monopolistic aggression, I feel that we need to fight harder to preserve this idea of cinema itself. Because as far as I can tell, it’s total war out there. Companies don’t want merely to survive and grow; they want to dominate and overthrow. Competition, alternatives, consumer choice—these are quickly becoming things of the past, along with the actual movies of the past. It’s all or nothing. I am convinced that certain companies don’t want just to offer alternative viewing options; they want to be the only viewing option. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the only way they foresee turning an actual profit. Maybe they’ve crunched the numbers and don’t feel that a world with a wealth of choices is a sustainable one for them.

So you guys tell me: Am I just a privileged fuddy-duddy hanging on to the outmoded ways of his youth? I want Netflix and Amazon to exist, and I want movie theaters to exist, and I want Blu-rays and DVDs to exist. Do I ask the impossible?

Bilge

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