Saturday, 11 August 2012
FILM REVIEW: BERNIE
When I read the brief synopsis for Bernie on imdb -- a mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she's alive -- I had suspected to be in for some Weekend At Bernie's-style corpse-carrying capers and hi-jinx. And that assumption wouldn't ordinarily be out of the question given the presence of Jack Black.
But writer-director Richard Linklater's mockumentary-like black comedy based on actual events is an altogether different beast. And so, too, is Mr Black who, in the titular role of Bernie Tiede, small town Texas mortician, renaissance man and friend to all, gives arguably the best performance of his career (outside of 2008's Kung Fu Panda, of course).
Bernie Tiede arrives in the small Texan town of Carthage to take up a position as assistant funeral director and fast becomes a popular resident (particularly with the women folk), as much for his customer service skills as his ability to make the loved ones' deceased look peaceful and, in some instances, better than they ever did in life.
Bernie, played by Black with a straight-backed walk not unlike Alfred Hitchcock and a moustache that would scream 'cad' in a silent film, may or may not be gay but so besotted is the community with this portly prince charming, who directs and performs in local theatre productions and leads a Boy Scout troop, that even a sexual peccadillo like that can be overlooked.
What they can't fathom, however, is Bernie's inexplicable relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Inexplicable because the majority of the townsfolk regard the wealthy widow as an A-grade bitch. But Bernie and Marjorie seem to be two peas in a pod, accompanying each other around town, dining out and vacationing together; Bernie even becomes Marjorie's financial advisor.
And the money, according to Carthage District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), is the main reason why Bernie kills Marjorie. Davidson has the trial moved out of town once he realises that he will be unable to find a sympathetic jury, well, at least not for the victim. The townsfolk simply can't believe that Bernie would kill someone, and given that it was Marjorie Nugent, well, it's not really all that bad, is it?
Having the Carthage townsfolk speak for themselves was an inspired choice by Linklater; their frank and funny to-camera reminisces about Bernie and Marjorie, not to mention their thoughts on non-East Texas residents are too honest to be scripted.
Still, after a while I grew weary of the talking heads discussing Bernie: I wanted more of what Bernie himself was thinking and feeling. And we don't really get that from Linklater's screenplay despite Black's terrific performance.
Linklater has worked with both Black and McConaughey before (the former on School of Rock, which earned Black a Golden Globe nomination; the latter in one of his earliest roles, 1992's Dazed and Confused), and he obviously knows how to get the best out of each.
McConaughey, who is on a roll of sorts following The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Magic Mike and, by all accounts, Killer Joe (which I've yet to see), perfectly pitches his performance this side of caricature whilst still giving his hard-nosed lawyer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Roy Scheider in Jaws) a comic countenance.
But the revelation is Black, who reins in his usual manic mugging and plays Bernie Tiede straight. Well, as straight as Bernie Tiede was. Black never strives for comic effect but underplays the inherently comic characteristics of this unlikely people's choice.
Sadly MacLaine, who's been playing crabby old women for three decades now, may not have all that much to do (she barely has any dialogue) but she gives Marjorie Nugent just enough bile, and a killer scowl, that you can understand how someone might be driven to kill her, and how no one really cared when they did.
Linklater, and fellow scribe, Skip Hollandsworth, perfectly capture the eccentricity and internal logic of small towns, and not just specifically American; as someone who grew up in country Australia, I know a thing or two about specious and selective moralising.
But all of the elements -- screenplay, direction, actors and the fact-is-stranger-than-fiction original story -- are near to perfect, making Bernie one of the best comedies of the year.