Adam McKay’s film Vice follows the life and political career of Vice President Dick Cheney, and it has been received with truly polarized reactions. The success of The Big Short was so resounding that I almost forgot that before that movie McKay films were gonzo comedies starring Will Ferrell. Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys are all movies I hold all near and dear to my heart. They are descendants of movies like History of the World: Part 1, and Airplane, and Monty Python. Like these films McKay doesn’t stick to the normal standards of storytelling. These are comedies that throw logic out the window, and create their own frenetic and flexible internal logic.
Reflecting on the weirdness of these films, I think comedies may be one of the few types of mass media that’s allowed to be this weird, reckless, and avant-garde. McKay’s films follow traditional narrative convention loosely. A cohesive story is not the goal. These are films built to be joke delivery systems. Their purpose is to make people laugh. McKay will follow a joke to it’s logical or illogical conclusion. Characters behave like children, expressing emotion with the most extreme possible tactics. They’ll break into song, or scream to the heavens, or devolve into violence. McKay will enter dream sequences, nightmares, and fantasies. He’s not afraid of tangents and improvised monologues. He’s famous for shooting dozens of alternate snappy one liners. (So many that he made an entirely alternate version of Anchorman calledWake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Legend Continues.) He uses every tool in the toolshed in the name of a good joke.
The Big Short and now Vice seem like a big departure for McKay because of the subject matter. These two films are explicitly political, and are presented (or at least advertised) as serious dramas for grownups. But these films are a natural evolution from McKay’s earlier films. All his films are political. Anchorman is about the changing professional landscape of the 70s, when women were claiming more power in the workplace. Talladega Nights satirizes the hyper-capitalistic nature in pro sports. The Other Guys is a ridiculous parody of buddy cop films, but it also gets into the weeds about Wall Street corruption. (In one of the film’s broader statements, the lobby of Trump Tower explodes in a fiery blaze in the opening scene.) McKay’s films have always had a clear political perspective. The Big Short and Vice foreground this perspective, and still use McKay’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. Instead of delivering jokes, they deliver information. The Big Short earned a lot of praise for how it dispensed exposition. The film stops and famous people explain concepts like “subprime loans.” This was delighting because it’s bold, different, and legitimately educational. Vice uses the same technique tenfold, dispensing exposition at a mile a minute. There are labeled maps and metaphorical board games. There’s voice over narration, not to explain the character’s inner thoughts, but to explain concepts like the unitary executive theory. There are cutaways that cross time and space, sometimes closing the emotional and physical distance between the halls of the White House and the theater of war.
Adam McKay isn’t good at crafting story, and I’m not sure he’s particularly interested in it. What he is absolutely interested in is letting his audience know that the sky is falling. McKay knows exactly how the financial crash of 2008 happened. He’s the guy at the party who gets a little too drunk and a little too excited and rants for 25 minutes about how fucked up Wall Street is, because he knows about this shit, and he desperately wants you to know about it too. Film has always been a tool of communication, but traditionally we use it to communicate human stories and intangible ideas. In Vice McKay doesn’t succeed at telling the story of Dick Cheney the man. He succeeds at teaching the audience about Dick Cheney the historical figure, and the tangible effect he had on the world. Comedies have a precedent for a structure that privileges pieces (in comedies jokes, in Vice information) over the whole (a traditional character-based story). On the other hand, Vice’s closest relatives are not other biopics or political dramas, rather they are found outside of cinema.
YouTube is overflowing with video essays, the vast majority addressing film and television. Like a written essay, the video essay advances an argument, with the goal of educating or persuading the viewer of an idea. They take advantage of the medium’s audiovisual tools such as scripted narration, juxtaposed video and photos, visual data like charts and graphs, and many more. The format originally gained prominence in academia, but with the advent of accessible video editing software and YouTube the video essay became a democratic form. Vice similarly employs a myriad of audiovisual techniques toward the goal of making an argument. Like video essays Vice uses a lot of archival film and photos and has near constant narration.
McKay’s approach with Vice also owes a lot to talk shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Video essays were born from academia and seek to teach, these shows are born from late night comedy and TV news, and seek to entertain and inform. Each of these shows features a comedian before an audience explaining nuanced political issues and current events, peppered with jokes and sick burns. They present legitimate information, but a big part of their function is to validate their audience and provide the satisfying feeling of winning a debate. Both these programs and Vice aim to mix information and entertainment in equal parts while being honest and unapologetic about their ideological perspective.
McKay essentially takes the function of these two formats and dresses them in a cinematic skin. It’s a fascinating place to take a film, but it’s hard to swallow when you’re advertised a film, and you arrive to the theater and see an explainer video. I imagine Vice would be received more warmly if it was released as an HBO special, or was somehow better contextualized by it’s marketing. A big part of the problem is also that Vice just isn’t the best execution of this concept. Video essays can be as short as four minutes and typically max out at an hour, late night shows are usually standard 22 minute episodes. Vice, which meanders down rabbit holes, covers a huge timespan starts to drag as it’s 132 minute runtime progresses. It makes sense that a pioneering effort is a little clumsy in its execution, but McKay is bringing us a fascinating new type of film. I hope that, despite Vice’s mixed critical reception and failure at the box office, McKay continues to develop this new type of cinema.