Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: On the Basis of Sex and Vice

Travel has kept me from posting about movies for a while, but there are two Christmas Day releases which I happened to catch screenings of last month: On The Basis Of Sex and Vice.

There’s a concept I heard recently which stuck with me. It’s the idea of “liberal Doritos” 1, denoting media which exists to reiterate progressive concepts (or express outrage at their conservative counterparts) without expounding in any meaningful way. Pod Save America, viral John Oliver rants, whatever fraction of Twitter follows Robert Reich. There’s nothing wrong with Doritos, per se, but they aren’t particularly nourishing either — that hunger which drove you to crack open a bag isn’t one a twelve pack can satisfy. It’s an empty calorie addiction: the more you eat, the more you crave, and the more vaguely uncomfortable you feel. A moderate amount might be good for your mental health, but keep an eye on that systolic.

If certain podcasts are liberal Doritos, On The Basis Of Sex (3/5) is an IV filled with liberal hot fudge: a treacly indulgence that delivers on its promise and asks for nothing in return. A hagiographic take on the early life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, it’s exactly what its trailers (and final release date) implied: well-acted, well-intentioned, and, well, obvious. Felicity Jones gives a perfectly charismatic performance as RBG, Armie Hammer her improbably wonderful husband, Sam Waterston and Stephen Root her bah-humbug-a-woman’s-place-is-in-the-kitchen antagonists, and so on: the battle lines are drawn in crayon, along with helpful “Stand here to be on the right side of history” labels lest any of us get confused about the hot button issue of Are Wealthy White Women People Also. Applause lines outnumber moral dilemmas about 8000 to 0: save Justin Theroux’s ACLU head, there isn’t a whiff of uncertainty to be found here — let alone a discernible flaw under Ruth’s halo. While none of that is surprising, or a genuine threat to its feel-good aims, it certainly makes for a toothless final product. But hey, who needs teeth when you’ve got that sweet, sweet drip.

Vice (3.5/5) similarly features an all star cast standing on telegraphed sides of history, but there’s nothing sweet about it. Adam McKay’s directorial follow up to The Big Short is what happens when you crush liberal Doritos into a cool ranch powder, chop it fine with the edge of a Michael Moore DVD, and start sniffing. It’s a wild, abrasive ride, is what I’m saying; and while it’s not holding any of its punches, it also isn’t out to remotely challenge you. Christian Bale’s portrayal of Dick Cheney is absolutely incredible, and Amy Adams more than holds her own as Lynne. I’m sure somewhere on McKay’s editing machine lives a deliciously bleak, complex biopic starring the two of them. This one, though, tips its hand faster than you can slur “Halliburton” at a neighboring barstool, complete with maniacal laughter, cutaways to nature documentaries, and the least necessary narrator this side of Casino. I believe almost every word of what it’s saying, but did it have to stand so close to my face? Vice is a movie which somehow italicizes its own underlines; a giddy takedown of the Cheney dynasty which basks in its biases, which has zero desire to appear balanced or impartial. And hey, maybe balance is overrated in 2018; maybe it’s right to let loose and just feel angry for a night. God knows it’s an entertaining way to pass the time. But if you expected something cogent or educational like The Big Short, you’ve come to the wrong place. This particular upper wasn’t prescribed to help you study. Chris and I chatted about On The Basis Of Sex a few weeks back.

  1. I believe this came from Mike Hogan on the Little Gold Men podcast by Vanity Fair.

See my review on Letterboxd