Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Movie Review: Bernie

Bernie *** ½
Directed by: Richard Linklater.
Written by: Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater based on the article by Hollandsworth.
Starring: Jack Black (Bernie Tiede), Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie Nugent), Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck), Rick Dial (Don Leggett), Tommy G. Kendrick (Larry Brumley), Brady Coleman (Scrappy Holmes), Brandon Smith (Sheriff Huckabee), Sonny Carl Davis (Lonnie), Juli Erickson (Mrs. Estes), David Blackwell (Mel), Richard Robichaux (Lloyd Hornbuckle).

Richard Linklater`s Bernie exists at the intersection of comedy and tragedy, fiction film and documentary. It is somehow all of those things, and none of them at the same time. This makes Bernie, the film, as tough to define as Bernie the character is. And its further proof that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what Texas director Linklater is going to do next.

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) arrives in the small, East Texas town of Carthage from Louisiana, where he immediately makes an impression on the locals as the assistant funeral director. There is not an aspect of his job he doesn’t excel at – embalming, making up the deceased, delivering sermons and eulogies, singing whatever song they want. But what he is best at is comforting the family of the dearly departed – he specializes in grieving widows. The residents of Carthage – many of them playing themselves giving interviews talking about Bernie – speculate as to whether or not he was gay – but the truth is it hardly matters. He has no time to date, and shows no interest in women his own age – and is never seen out and about with men. He always seems to be on the arm of some wealthy, old widow. And soon, it is one widow in particular – Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine). In a town full of wealthy widows, she is the wealthiest. She is also one of the most hated women in town – cold, distant, stuck up and cheap, despite her wealth. She barely even speaks to her own family – who hate her as much as anyone in town, and have even sued her to get at some of the money they feel they are entitled to. The only person she likes is Bernie – who she showers with expensive gifts, and takes him on her various trips around the world. Soon, Bernie has left his job at the funeral home, and works full time for Marjorie – doing practically everything for her. And she becomes more and more possessive of him and his time, and it starts driving the pleasant Bernie insane. He likes to be involved in everything in town, and Marjorie wants him to spend all his time with her – and because Bernie has expensive tastes, he goes along with it for as long as he can. We know from the start that this isn’t going to end well – why else does everyone in town refer to both Bernie and Marjorie in the past tense, and why else would District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) be the only person interviewed who seems to hate sweet, little Bernie.

Jack Black delivers one of his best performances as Bernie – the slightly effeminate, ever cheerful, charming and fun center of the film. This is a more serious role for Black, but it is hardly an all-out `dramatic` role for the comedian – it just has a little bit more depth than the characters he usually gets to play. The role still gives Black a chance to show his more exuberant side – like in a rousing rendition of 76 Trombones in full costume. And Black is as instantly likable as he always is in his films – and just as funny. And yet, there is a side of Bernie – a darkness – that only bares peaks through the cracks. In many ways, although nearly every scene in the film involves Bernie, or at least someone talking about Bernie, he remains an enigma. We are well aware that there is a part of Bernie that we don’t get to see in this movie – that he shows to no one. The other two major performances are also quite good, but have less depth. Shirley MacLaine is used more for her stature and physical presence than anything else, but she is effective in her role. Matthew McConaughey has never been a favorite of mine, but in a role where he has to be all laid back, Texas charm, he is effective – and actually quite funny.

For a movie as fun as Bernie, the film also raises some interesting questions about small town life and justice. At the heart of the movie is a murder – but no one in town really seems to care. After the truth of what happens comes out, everyone in town feels sorry for the perpetrator and no one feels bad for the victim. The trail, when it happens, has a lot of interesting observations, and manipulations by the D.A. that he needs to make in order to get what he wants. This is an interesting film, an entertaining film, and yet there`s a lot more going on under the surface.

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