Lessons of latest Adam McKay film feel relevant today

Here’s an unexpected plot twist, 14 years after the release of “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”

“Anchorman” star Will Ferrell’s Christmas release, the comedy “Holmes and Watson,” tested so poorly that even Netflix didn’t want it, and moviegoers are finding it so unfunny that some are walking out.

“Anchorman” director Adam McKay’s Christmas release, the wild and winding Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” could be in the Oscar Best Picture race. 

In fairness, Ferrell is likely just collecting a paycheck while McKay is exercising the creative freedom afforded by his last movie, “The Big Short,” which was an Oscar nominee.

“Vice” implements what’s becoming McKay’s signature tone: darkly comedic, and with creative story devices to make the heavy stuff go down with a spoonful of sugar.

With a humorous “based on a true story”-type opening card, McKay, who also wrote the script, acknowledges that this story is pieced together as best it can be given that Cheney, who is notoriously tight-lipped, remains one of the most secretive politicians in modern history.

Cheney, portrayed through the years by an often unrecognizable Christian Bale, is shown in his younger, wilder days, prior to a line-in-the-sand lecture from his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams). 

With a fire lit under him, the young Cheney begins an ascent through the machinations of government, moving from a shrewd low-level bureaucrat to molding the office of vice president into a position of power that few ever imagined.

McKay uses narration (and a clever mystery narrator), montages, third-wall-breaking asides and more to keep things far punchier than your average biopic. 

His technique is not quite as effective as it was in “The Big Short” (where celebrities made cameos to give the viewers complex lessons in economics), but it works more often than not. 

Will your political leanings affect how you view “Vice”? Well, duh. At its best, “Vice” lays out some key events of Cheney’s career in a way that makes you laugh while simultaneously leaving you seething. Mission accomplished, indeed. 

Bale’s pitch-perfect performance is often brilliantly deadpan, with only a few cracks of humanity showing beneath the calculated, emotionally flat surface. Cheney was a man interested in power, and one who was also intensely effective at seizing and exploiting it.

Adams is also great, as is Alison Pill’s portrayal of the Cheneys’ lesbian daughter, Mary. Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush is also a scene-stealer (moreso than Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld). 

“Vice” is flawed, sure, but it’s a punchy lesson in how our political system can be gamed by those with the will. That lesson seems very relevant.