Brow Beat

Why Vice Fails Where All Adam McKay’s Other Films Succeeded

And why those failings are precisely the reason Oscar voters love it.

Photo illustration of various Adam McKay films, including Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Anchorman, and Step-Brothers
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Annapurna Pictures; Paramount Pictures; DreamWorks Studios; Columbia Pictures.

Vice is writer-director Adam McKay’s seventh film and easily his worst. It’s strangely paced and tonally disjointed, with strained winks and fourth-wall-breaking gimmickry hiding its lousy storytelling about as well as its makeup work hides its lousy acting. It received little love from critics and less from audiences: Its Cinemascore viewer rating sits at a C+, one notch below such punchlines as Welcome to Marwen and Mortal Engines. And yet the film has received eight Oscar nominations, including nods in every major category aside from Best Actress, in which it had no entrant. (Amy Adams, in the film’s closest performance to a female lead, is up for Best Supporting Actress.) So, to borrow a phrase: What the fuck happened?

I’ll pause here and disclose that I think McKay is an enormously gifted filmmaker, and that Vice, for all its problems, has done almost nothing to diminish this opinion. But in a stupid irony befitting a very stupid Oscar year—and one that wouldn’t be far out of place in one of McKay’s own movies, which often involve stupid people doing stupidly ironic things—Vice’s flaws may actually be the thing that has most endeared it to Academy voters, who’d never bothered to acknowledge McKay’s work until recently, despite his having made several of the most influential comedies of the 21st century.

McKay’s best films have always used outwardly outlandish characters (Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, Brennan Huff and Dale Doback) as entry points into satires of social and cultural institutions. His movies aren’t really that interested in people. Rather, they’re interested in systems that have curdled into solipsism and self-parody. In Anchorman and its sequel, Anchorman 2, the target is television news and its twisted cocktail of civics and celebrity, a world of buffoonish egomaniacs whose self-styled gravitas depends entirely on the functionality of teleprompters. In Talladega Nights, it’s the unholy union of big-time sports and consumer capitalism, metastasized in a stock-car icon whose human worth is indistinguishable from his commodity value, so much so that when his sponsorships dry up his wife leaves him for his racing partner—and his newfound sponsorships.

The Other Guys, a crucial and underappreciated film in McKay’s oeuvre, begins as a sendup of buddy-cop comedies only to reveal itself in its final act as a blistering critique of the financial sector, complete with a closing-credits sequence laying out the facts of the recent economic crisis and America’s growing income inequality. It’s a clear dry run for the caustic wit and rage of The Big Short, the film that earned McKay his first Best Director nomination and won him the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016.

McKay’s masterpiece is Step Brothers, his 2008 comedy starring Will Farrell and John C. Reilly, which takes one of the most banal story archetypes imaginable—the blended-family comedy—and explodes it into a wild satire of stunted masculinity, toxic privilege, and the false consciousness of late-capitalist “adulthood.” Step Brothers’ highly improvisatory style and radical hostility to standard narrative convention can evoke a meandering, shaggy-dog quality on first viewing, but it’s actually remarkably tight. It’s only a hair over 90 minutes, with most of the film taking place within the confines of the Huff-Doback house. The film’s world is small because its characters can’t conceive of a world any bigger, and by the end of the movie no one actually has learned anything. It’s perfect, because, well, [gestures at the entirety of contemporary America].

Vice is a movie with many problems, but among the biggest is the film’s need to be “interested” in Dick Cheney in ways that McKay has never been particularly interested in any of his other characters. In McKay’s previous films, “origin stories” tend to be either totally ignored or blatantly mocked. Characters aren’t trapped in their respective systems because of something that’s happened to them. Rather, the system is what’s happened to them.

Vice gives us an intermittently entertaining but mostly rudderless tour of Cheney’s life, from his misspent Wyoming youth through his early 21st-century reign as arguably the most powerful human being on earth. Along the way it halfheartedly goes through the rote “explanatory” motions of the most conventional of biopics. Cheney acquires an indefatigable will to power, and at various times it’s suggested that this derives from a sense of obeisance to his smarter and more ambitious wife Lynne (Adams), or perhaps his toady-ish loyalty to mentors like Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), or maybe a fundamentally malevolent (if latent) opportunism triggered by his early encounters with an agreeably underwhelming running mate, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, who seems to be playing Will Ferrell).

One of Vice’s most discussed scenes features a young Cheney earnestly asking Donald Rumsfeld “What do we believe?” prompting Rumsfeld to burst into gasping laughter. It’s a broad, lazy joke that also feels like an intellectual cop-out. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their political bedfellows are guilty of appalling things, but nihilism was never one of them. They knew exactly what they believed, and they believed in it zealously and often in the face of evidence to the contrary—recall the notorious Bush-era disparagement of the “reality-based community.” (In a recent interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, McKay insists that Cheney’s ideology was more fluid than a doctrinaire Straussian or Randian, which may be true, but I’d argue that Bush-era neoconservatism derived its power precisely from its adaptive malleability.) The best way to take stock of Dick Cheney and the eras he both presided over and gave way to isn’t to burrow inside the man but rather to expose the systems of belief that he served—in other words, exactly the sort of filmmaking that McKay has previously been so adept at.

So why all the Oscar love? After all, there hasn’t been much from anywhere else—its Rotten Tomatoes score is just a shade above Bohemian Rhapsody’s, and Vice hasn’t had anywhere near the box-office success of that critically derided crowd-pleaser. And yet Vice’s copious failings—particularly its most unfortunately un­–McKay-like aspects—are exactly the sorts of things that the Academy reveres. Oscar voters love films that pretend to tackle Serious Issues but in fact exploit them as stages for personality operas and starry performances.

Look no further than Green Book, in which the racism of the Jim Crow South is conquered by two men’s friendship, or 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which rape and police brutality are deployed in service of a redemptive character arc, for a police officer. The history of the Oscars is littered with such films. Vice is forever unsure whether it wants us to view Cheney as a monster or a real human being. But why dwell on this inconsistency when you can just marvel at how Christian Bale transformed himself for the role?

Whether or not Dick Cheney is a monster or a real human being shouldn’t matter much to anyone who’s genuinely interested in why he did what he did. Had Cheney resigned the vice presidency on Sept. 10, 2001, there would have been no shortage of people left within the Bush White House ready to expand the surveillance state and plunge the U.S. into war with Iraq at the first opportunity. But by being a story about him, Vice allows viewers and voters to marvel at the verisimilitude of Bale’s performance and wring their hands over his character’s alleged complexities (always evidenced through his relationships with female family members, a truly hackneyed shorthand), while never having to think very hard about the potential complicity of anyone and everyone who’s not him. (Unless, of course, it’s fans of the Fast and the Furious films, one of the most profitable franchises in history that’s never been nominated for a single Academy Award.)

What’s most frustrating is that Adam McKay almost certainly knows all this. Anyone who follows the filmmaker on Twitter or has read or listened to interviews with him knows that he’s a remarkably astute political observer who’s well to the left of most A-list directors in putatively “liberal” Hollywood. My sense is that Vice simply got away from him, a rare misstep in a career with precious few so far. Adam McKay will make great movies again, and probably soon—his next project, an adaptation of John Carreyrou’s terrific Bad Blood, should play directly to the strengths that made The Big Short so satisfying. Maybe he’ll win some more Oscars someday, and if he doesn’t, here’s hoping it’s because he’s gone back to being far too good for them.