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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

February 19, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: The Big Short and Vice

[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]
On the value and the limits of satire when it comes to contemporary, contested events.
One of the more interesting artistic transformations of the 21st century has been that of writer and director Adam McKay. McKay rose to prominence through his collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell (and others) on a series of extremely silly comedies: Anchorman (2004) and its sequel, Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010). If you haven’t had a chance to see any of those films, the most important thing to emphasize (and one you can gather from just about any clip from any of them) is that they are almost entirely, and very purposefully, non-thematic, overtly not interested in social or cultural issues and just trying to make audiences laugh as consistently and hard as possible. But in 2015, McKay wrote and directed The Big Short, a satirical dramedy based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name about the 2008 housing crisis and financial meltdown. And this past Christmas saw the release of a second, very similar McKay film, Vice, a satirical dramedy based on the life and political career (to date) of Dick Cheney (starring Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Liz, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, and many more actors).
These satirical yet serious takes on hot-button contemporary issues parallel in many ways one of the 21st century’s most popular cultural genres: the satirical news commentary and comedy program. Originated by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (especially once Jon Stewart took over the hosting gig), this genre has become one of the most prolific in recent years, from Stephen Colbert and John Oliver to Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj (among others!). Even late-night talk show hosts have gotten in on the act in diverse but equally compelling ways. What unites all these satirical news programs is their desire to walk a fine line between making audiences laugh (not constantly, but at least consistently) and providing thought-provoking commentary on current events, and I would say McKay’s recent films are aiming for that same sweet spot. I haven’t had a chance to see Vice yet, but I did see The Big Short and it was most definitely seeking to provide both laughs and knowledge, often in the exact same sequences (as with the famous and controversial use of random beautiful actresses to talk about the fine points of housing policy and economics). As that hyperlinked sequence featuring Margot Robbie notes, knowing these seemingly boring details is pretty vital to understanding the last decade in American life, and the goal of using comedy and satire to convey such details links McKay’s recent films to these news programs.
Yet I have significantly more ambivalence about McKay’s films than I do about those programs, and I think it boils down to one factor: the use of talented, likable actors to create sympathy for figures who have contributed negatively and destructively to these recent histories. That was somewhat the case with The Big Short’s protagonists, mortgage brokers (played by highly likable actors such as Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale) who seemingly fought the system yet at the same time profited greatly by predicting and betting on the upcoming crash and crisis. And it’s very definitely the case with Vice—again, I haven’t had a chance to see it as of this writing, but part of the reason why is that I love watching Christian Bale in anything, and really don’t relish the thought of him playing Dick Cheney, to my mind one of the truly evil figures in the last century of American political and social life. Every historical figure is a flesh-and-blood human being, with various layers and sides, and so I suppose every one is also worth extended attention and even sympathy. But I don’t know that we need an entire film creating such a multi-layered portrait of Dick Motherfucking Cheney (that’s his full name, y’know), and I likewise am not at all sure that the lighter touch of comedy and satire are appropriate when it comes to depicting such a figure. I suppose there’s a place for such films, but they’re likely to remain non-favorites for this AmericanStudier (and for reviewers such as Slate’s Bilge Ebiri, it seems).
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?

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