VICE,  ★★ , Opening Tuesday, Dec. 25

“Vice” is the nickname President George W. Bush gave Vice President Dick Cheney. It’s also a stock character in Elizabethan morality plays, a devilish opportunist often cloaked as Virtue, remorseless for evil acts. This is the promising prism through which director Adam McKay refracts Cheney, the brooding fulcrum of a right-wing movement that began with Nixon and continues through Trump.

But a feature film, like Shakespeare, requires other elements. Vice, an ambitious mess, is a parody in search of a punch line—a cheap-seats harangue no more insightful than Wikipedia. It opens with a disclaimer from the filmmakers, who ostensibly set out to reveal something about the notoriously inscrutable Cheney: “We did our fucking best.” As the film goes on, this defiant declaration sounds more and more like an exasperated mea culpa.

We first meet Cheney (a corpulent Christian Bale) in 1963, a hard-drinking “dirtbag” who goes from running high-tension line across Wyoming to a congressional internship on Capitol Hill without much transition. Cheney learns at the feet of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), a young representative with a Cheshire grin and a crass disposition. They worm their way into the White House, eventually scoring high-ranking positions amid the wreckage of Watergate.

McKay then speed-walks us to 2000, when Bush (Sam Rockwell) is begging Cheney to serve as his running mate. It’s intriguing to observe how the initially ambivalent Cheney sizes up Bush as a greenhorn and gradually reels him into augmenting the power of the vice president. Less intriguing are McKay’s caricatures. Bale turns in a masterful act of mimicry that reveals little about the man or his motives. Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) is just a sanctimonious prude. Rockwell pigeon-toes his way through a cornpone W. that minimizes Bush’s culpability.

At one point, Alfred Molina appears as a waiter offering Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of their dinner party such menu items as “Enemy Combatant,” “Extreme Rendition,” and “Guantanamo Bay,” a surreal aside similar to the one McKay used in The Big Short. The scene is an apt metaphor for the whole of Vice, in which a parade of horrors—9/11, Abu Ghraib, Cheney shooting his friend in the face—swirl in a haze of visual tchotchkes and thinktank argot. Accompanying it all is the needless nattering of a narrator, a common crutch of McKay’s, who dangles the identity of his omnipresent observer like the MacGuffin it becomes.

For all its faults, Vice nearly stumbles onto an ending that befits its tragic, dramatic aspirations: a montage of Cheney’s political casualties that fades to black on the image of his transplanted heart. But then McKay tacks on one of the most misguided mid-credits codas you’ll ever see, allowing Cheney to break the fourth wall and defend his actions in service of “keeping us safe.” It’s remorseless Vice, still as much a stock character as ever.