Vice: Adam McKay’s Endless Study of White Male Privilege

Vice continues Adam McKay's fascination with ridiculing and unpacking white male privilege, from Anchorman to Dick Cheney.

Long before Adam McKay was the Oscar winning co-writer of The Big Short, or the filmmaker who convinced Christian Bale to transform his body into a Dick Cheney shape for Vice, he was best known as the behind-the-camera collaborator of Will Ferrell. Dating back to a dynamic relationship on SNL, the pair had a string of comedy hits that helped shape the pop culture landscape of the 2000s, including Anchorman, Step Brothers, and Talladega Nights. Yet in addition to being generally successful, all of these films in varying ways, big and small, revisited a theme with as much wit and sophistication as his more recent bids for awards season credibility: the brittleness of white male entitlement.

I can recall the first time I saw Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby at a Southern multiplex in 2006. While the least of McKay and Ferrell’s three big movies, or four counting The Other Guys from the Obama years, Talladega Nights is perhaps the best companion piece to Vice. Whereas the current biopic attempts to explore with maximum cynicism how a backseat-driving vice president helped create much of our 21st century nightmare, Talladega Nights came out in the thick of those times, gleefully mocking NASCAR two years after the George W. Bush/Cheney ticket won reelection, in part thanks to alleged “NASCAR Dads” voting Republican—they also made major political inroads by campaigning against gay marriage in 2004, claiming it would be a priority for a second term to create a constitutional amendment that banned such unions. The irony that Cheney was personally against that amendment—as Vice details with its solitary concession to the VP’s apparent humanity as a father—didn’t stop it from being a red meat issue in red states, including the one where I saw fellow audiences eagerly laugh along with Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby as he overcompensates for his stupidity with aggressive anti-intellectualism and oblivious jingoism.

It plays so broad that some have argued it glorifies this level of prideful ignorance… and it might have if not for the climax when the perpetually homophobic Ricky Bobby ends his feature-length rivalry with the French, effete driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) by taking the openly gay man in his arms and laying a passionate, open-mouthed kiss on him as Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” blasts to the cracker barrel heavens. Today such a sequence might be critiqued as exploiting LGBTQ stereotypes to play as a gag for a largely heteronormative American audience. But the difference between McKay’s humor—from Ricky Bobby to Dick Cheney—and that of so many comedy peers of that era is he seems astutely aware of the white male privilege he and his characters possess. He also mocks it relentlessly. Ricky Bobby is the fool of his own story, and for anyone who made the mistake to agree with him, they were rewarded with a sequence that caused an audience filled with recent Bush voters to stop laughing and squirm at the realization that the joke was on them. As always with McKay’s movies, the white privilege of both his characters and his audience is subject to ridicule.

It is a theme that makes each of his films age better than most of the similarly improv-heavy comedies of the 2000s and early 2010s, and will likely make Vice endure longer than its meager CinemaScore might suggest. For like those laughers, Vice, and the superior The Big Short too, realize it’s essaying characters of extreme immorality and often irredeemable value. Whereas most comedies want you to love their buffoonish heroes, sometimes much to the horror of later generations, McKay’s protagonists are almost uniformly deplorable. Only recently, however, has this cultural criticism become happy enough to drop the desire to have us feel good about laughing at them.

Every one of Ferrell’s protagonists in these 2000s films represented a facet of American entitlement that is now being debated almost daily in our headlines. Anchorman’s Ron Burgandy and company were a fraternal group of buddies, but unlike many of the “frat pack” comedies at the beginning of the decade (that Ferrell also appeared in) or the bromance movies produced by Judd Apatow at the end of it, the “Channel 4 News Team” is mostly a group of degenerates who can barely mask their misogyny for women in the work place behind their enormous mustaches and plaid suits. Placing its story in a 1970s setting, the film admittedly hedges its bets by creating a distance between “now and then” for its audience, yet it nevertheless refuses to truly let Ron off the hook when his far more competent and successful lover/co-anchor, Vernoica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), laments, “There are literally thousands of other men that I should be with instead, but I’m 72 percent sure that I love you.” The film never asks audiences to see Ron as anything short of a raging asshole, even if he is a hero of mythic import in his own head—and one who’s sexual harassment tactics seem even more tasteless, if depressingly acurrate, following the recent cultural reckoning of the #MeToo age.

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Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys continued this critique in a modern day context. If Talladega Nights was a parody of the type of ignorance McKay and Ferrell viewed as endemic in a culture that would empower Dick Cheney, then the latter two films began to consider the consequences. The Other Guys appears, in retrospect, as a preamble to The Big Short in which the buddy cop formula, as well as McKay and Ferrell’s love for comic anarchy, was used to couch a wish fulfillment fantasy of Hollywood formula taking down real societal menaces: like the white collar criminals who just tanked the global economy two years prior and then went on like it was business as usual. Step Brothers, which is arguably Ferrell and McKay’s best movie, was meanwhile a vivid deconstruction of the kind of man-child entitlement that would not-so-coincidentally define pop culture in the decade that followed.

In that film, Ferrell’s Brennan and John C. Reilly’s Dale are two grown, 40-year-old men still living with their parents, and who continue to revel in the pastimes of their now distant childhoods: Star Wars, drum sets, and, yes, boats and hoes, are all that matter to these deranged harbingers of Gamergate and the rise of whiny white male aggrievement in fan culture to come, including among the Star Wars community. Even the movie’s climax, where Brennan and Dale achieve supposed emotional growth, is predicated on a tone of complete cynicism for the pair and those who love them. One of the last lines of the movie is, after all, a psychiatrist telling their parents, “You both know this is completely fucked up, right?” Right down to the very mid-credits scene, where the “mature” and enlightened Dale and Brennan use their newfound fortune to beat up elementary schoolers, McKay has no interest in soft-pedalling this type of arrested development toxicity as endearing, like so many other “bromance” movies used to do. Dale and Brennan’s petulance is treated as amusingly awful in Step Brothers, but they are never amusing as people; they are awful. Nor is it amusing that the culture they represent of perpetual irresponsibility has flourished even after the near economic apocalypse that occurred shortly after the film’s July 2008 release.

Indeed, proving the reverse on the truism that comedy is tragedy plus time, the more time that has passed since the beginning of the 21st century, the more confidently McKay has become at ridiculing his targets without humorous filters. The Big Short acted as McKay’s attempt to create an entertaining and even lighthearted amusement… that still nevertheless gave a trenchant analysis of why the housing market collapsed during the years the director was making Talladega and Step Brothers. The film has an almost self-loathing glibness about American distraction and entertainment, as it chronicles the passing of the years not by dates but by pop culture artifacts, from Top Gun in the ‘80s to South Park’s birth in the ‘90s. Presumably Ron Burgundy’s glorious head of hair could have been added too. Meanwhile the looming explosion that cost millions of Americans their homes inches steadily closer.

With Vice, McKay attempts to unpack that culture from his own most prolific years with thinly veiled anger. Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and Dale and Brennan, Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney is a white man who has eventual success despite loutish behavior. The movie opens with a rotund Bale stumbling out of a car for his first of two DWIs, which led to him being booted out of Yale while his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) looks on with an incredulity that isn’t veiled beneath satirical affection like Veronica Corningstone. In 1960s Wyoming, Lynne needed a man if she wanted political power, a man who despite his incompetence and screw-ups was unquestionably entitled to as many chances as Ron and Ricky, the latter of whom also enjoyed an “understanding” Amy Adams in that 2006 movie, despite his continued boneheadedness.

Thus as Dick rises up the chain of the beltway establishment in D.C., he and the boys club he forms with future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and personal counsel David Addington (Don McManus) is depicted with the same backslapping smugness of the Channel 4 News Team. Indeed, Vice makes good on one of Anchorman’s parting zingers: that a bumbling Steve Carell character will wind up in the Bush administration, save now rather than being treated as lovably incompetent Brick, Carell’s Rumsfeld arrogantly acts like a grade school bully when anyone raises the slightest question about whether Iraq poses a threat to the United States. He also enjoys one of the movie’s best moments when he savors a sneering laugh after he’s asked what “we” (as in Republican politicos) believe? It’s a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the McKay’s 2000s comedies, but now it’s juxtaposed with bombs being illegally dropped by the Nixon administration on Cambodian villages.

Throughout every film McKay has directed, the conflict has been a challenge to the powers and privileges of white male entitlement, and the vigilant guardians who view it as their duty to protect them. While the initial efforts surrounded that in the kind of comical nihilism that Hollywood blockbusters had not seen since the Marx Brothers, they never had anything less than disdain for their protagonists who, like a giggling Rumsfeld, only cared about maintaining their power: be it of the patriarchy (Anchorman), a limited definition of what (or who) is and isn’t American (Talladega Nights), or the pop culture of their youth (Step Brothers). With his latest efforts, McKay is simply broadening the lens to encompass the forces who shape those powers for their own ends, be it Wall Street or the White House.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.