There are individual moments of goodness littered all throughout Vice, and individual moments of badness, just like with any movie. Unluckily for the film, the moments of badness are all given pride of place, and so what might, in a happier life, have just been a moderately irritating "hip" biopic turns into one of the most wretched, smarmy, shitty movies of the 2018 awards season. Your mileage may vary, of course, and everything with art is always subjective, but I can at least say for myself that I haven't walked out of a movie this disgusted with the person who wrote and directed it in a very, very long time.

That person is Adam McKay, once the maker of the least-objectionable Will Ferrell comedies, who has since rebranded himself as your cool liberal uncle explaining how modern political history happened. Last time, in 2015, it was The Big Short, the cinematic equivalent of a Voxsplainer on the financial collapse of 2007-'08. This time it's a biopic of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), Chief of Staff of the Gerald Ford White House, U.S. Representative for the state of Wyoming, Secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush, and most notoriously, Vice President to President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) from 2001-2009, during which time he wielded more influence and power than any other person to have held that position.

There is a big difference between these two movies: only one of them actually needs to explain shit. The financial collapse really is a confusing thing to get one's head around, full of esoterica about how the stock market works, and while McKay's approach in The Big Short of using snarky cutaways, goofy bro humor, and other stylistic tics befitting the co-founder of Funny or Die was, in my mind, grating and obnoxious, it at least worked to communicate what needed to be communicated. Vice is no less grating and obnoxious, and it's smug as fuck on top of it. Right at the very start, our occasionally on-screen narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons, the film's unlikely MVP) assures us that what we're going to see for the next two hours and twelve minutes shall be s shocking exposé of the secret life of the unknown puppetmaster who did so much to create the current political order in the United States. And, like, fuck you, Adam McKay. The recap of Cheney's litany of evil deeds may or may not be necessary, but the hectoring know-it-all tone sure as hell isn't. Perhaps certain individuals were too busy spending the 2000s making parody comedies to notice, but Cheney's unprecedented power grab and the concomitant shift to a psychopathic neoconservative war policy were rather well-understood at the time. Vice's have-I-blown-your-mind-yet? approach is irritating as hell, and never more irritating then in the film's very last scene, a mid-credits number that adopts smirking anachronism with one hand, and then suggests that Americans are all uninformed cretins for enjoying Fast & Furious movies with the other. Which is shitty enough without noting that at least three Fast & Furious are better than anything McKay has ever made.

But anyway, the shocking untold story of one of the most famous politicians of the 21st Century. I will say about Vice that at least it gets one very important thing very right: Bale has absolutely nailed his character, going so deep into the heavy posture and inarticulate growl of an inveterate bureaucrat (with the aid of some top-notch make-up effects) that there is never any sense we're watching yet another act of gravel-voiced mimicry from somebody addicted to such things. Taken purely as a study of a semifictional construct named "Dick Cheney", Vice has all it needs to work like gangbusters, in the form of a crisply-written character acted to the hilt.

Tragically, it also has a lot of other stuff, and most of it is horrible. Like The Big Short, Vice uses a great many diversions to make sure we're probably amused during all of the tedious stuff of politicking and talking; unlike The Big Short, it does this in an extremely inconsistent, unsystematic way. And even within that lack of a system, the editing is still loose and messy. We get montages of still frames, Dramatic Zooms, a use of documentary footage of various War on Terror atrocities that I think crosses the line from "aesthetically bad" to "that plus also unethical". The film plays an extremely dumb joke by creating a false ending - with credits and everything - about an hour in, and it's not clear if the joke is on Cheney, on the biopic formula, on American history, or if it's just a way of keeping the filmmakers amused. At one point, Kurt makes a weak joke comparing Cheney to a character out of Shakespeare, after which the film fades to black before presenting Bale and Amy Adams (playing Lynne Cheney) reciting a scene from Macbeth - because in one of the most dubious of all its gestures, Vice actually does spend more than a few minutes nodding to the idea that Dick was just a stupid jackass trying to impress his hard-willed wife all along.

The film at least has the decency to never be boring: the grab-bag approach might result in a lot of trivial sarcasm, poor historical analysis, and reedy armchair psychology, but at least it's persistently distracting. McKay's sense of humor is nowhere remotely near mine, but I can at least imagine somebody who enjoyed The Big Short rather than just begrudgingly tolerating it would have at least a fair shot of enjoying this one too. Though it's pretty clearly the case that Vice is the worse film: besides having less of a clear sense of purpose in its comic aesthetic, it also indulges in far more distracting bits of casting (Tyler Perry as Colin Powell is so fucked-up that it goes back 'round to inspired, but Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld never gels, and Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz feels like a clerical error at the casting agency), and it indulges in a lot of narrative dead-ends, presenting the whole of Cheney's political career when it never evern pretends to care about anything other than the vice presidency, offering a few deadly biopic-cliché "hey it's THAT famous person" moments, and tacking on a wholly unnecessary coda about the conflict between Cheney's daughters Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe) over same-sex marriage.

On the plus side, Nicholas Britell's moody, dark jazz score works well enough to impress some kind of emotional order on the film's murky emotions, and Greig Fraser's oversaturated, grainy cinematography is characteristically strong, pointing in the direction of docurealism without actually pretending to be docu-realism. So the film may be arrogant trash with a bad sense of humor, but at least it's sensuously appealing trash.