Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in a scene from “Vice.” (Annapurna Pictures)

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, left, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in a scene from “Vice.” (Annapurna Pictures)

‘Vice’ can’t decide whether to satirize or humanize Dick Cheney

It’s a scattershot look at the life of George W. Bush’s veep played by shape-shifter Christian Bale.

At the time, it passed by as jokey footnote to a political campaign: In 2000, George W. Bush appointed veteran politico Dick Cheney to chair the committee to select Bush’s vice-presidential candidate. The eventual choice? Dick Cheney!

Seemed kind of funny then — politics as usual, right? When Cheney became the most powerful and influential vice president in U.S. history, it was maybe a little less side-splitting.

Surely this incident would be ripe for lampooning if you’re making a satirical movie about Dick Cheney. But in “Vice” it’s typical of writer-director Adam McKay’s scattershot approach that the selection committee incident goes by without an especially effective set-up/punchline.

“Vice” never settles into a confident approach to its subject: It’s a comedy, and it uses some of the direct-to-the-audience silliness of McKay’s “The Big Short,” but it also carries moments of unexpected sincerity, which means a more savage kind of political satire — the kind detonated in “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Death of Stalin” — isn’t really possible. What’s left is a vaguely annoyed biopic.

Christian Bale, up to his usual shape-shifting tricks, plays Cheney with an extra 45 pounds and an astonishing impersonation of the man’s behavioral tics. The story reaches back to Cheney’s misspent Wyoming youth, where he is kicked into shape by future wife, Lynne (an effective Amy Adams).

Famously having “other priorities” than military service during the Vietnam era, Cheney is mentored in Washington by Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), a Nixon insider. Carell is one of the film’s bright spots, breezily capturing the D.C. ethos of power for its own sake; his gales of laughter when Cheney asks him what conservatives actually stand for will haunt your dreams.

Bale has a great moment in this section: Telling Lynne that Nixon “gave me that impish smile of his,” at the White House, an image that would be terrifying if it weren’t so funny.

“Vice” isn’t pure satire; for instance, McKay humanizes Cheney as a man who loves his children. This sets up the movie’s most interesting dilemma: When daughter Liz runs for office in conservative Wyoming, the Cheneys must choose between political expediency and family — will Liz denounce gay marriage, despite having a lesbian sister? Will her father approve of this callous political gambit, despite having come out in favor of gay marriage himself? If you’re unsure of the answer, you don’t know Dick.

There’s a blackly comic meeting between Cheney and W (Sam Rockwell), in which Cheney humbly says he’d consider being Veep if he were allowed to take on a few extra duties, such as “military, energy, foreign policy.”

Fresh off his Oscar for “Three Billboards,” Rockwell of course brings humor as the 43rd president, yet his performance is never quite as delicious as the idea of his casting.

This is true elsewhere in “Vice”: the idea of Tyler Perry as Colin Powell sounds intriguing, but doesn’t develop. The idea of a mysterious onscreen narrator (Jesse Plemons) whose identity isn’t revealed until late in the film has potential, but it doesn’t add up. The idea of a scene with Dick and Lynne spouting Shakespearian verse sounds inventive, but it kinda just sits there.

“The Big Short” worked because it had a big target — the 2008 financial collapse — and relentless satirical bite. “Vice” is all over the place, as though changing its mind every few minutes. That’s a randomness its subject never displayed in his career of gaining and keeping political power.

“Vice” (1½ stars)

A scattershot look at the life of Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale in one of his astonishing shape-shifting performances). “Big Short” director Adam McKay can’t decide whether to satirize Cheney or find the human within, and the result is a movie that sounds funnier than it actually is. With Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell.

Rating: R, for language, subject matter

Showing: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville

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