BernieReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/18/12 07:34:01
The great Coen Brothers film "Fargo," you will recall, opened with a title card assuring viewers that the story they were about to see was true but that some details were changed in order to protect the privacy of the victims. It turned out, of course, that this was just another jape on the part of the Coens but for months afterwards, many people were still of the belief that all the stuff that happened on the screen actually occurred in real life. In hindsight, it sounds a little silly but on the other hand, I can understand why this notion took hold and persisted for so long--the story that the Coens had created was so fascinating and well-developed and the characters populating it were so quirky and compelling, especially in comparison with most other movies, that it was easy to believe that it was all real. Watching "Bernie," the latest film from Richard Linklater, I found myself thinking about "Fargo" a lot and in a good way. Like "Fargo," it tells a tale made up of equal parts crime drama, dark comedy and wry sociological study and features a group of absolutely fascinating characters at its core. Unlike "Fargo," the events seen on the screen apparently did happen back in 1996 (the year that "Fargo" came out, curiously enough) and while I cannot vouch 100% for its authenticity in every single regard, I can assure you that, like "Fargo," it feels utterly real throughout even during its strangest moments (and there are plenty of them to behold). I can also assure you that it is pretty much brilliant from start to finish and while I suspect that it is likely to get lost amidst the shuffle of summer behemoths coming down the bath, it seems highly unlikely that it won't go down as one of the best films of the year.Based on a 1998 article for Texas Monthly magazine by Skip Hollandworth (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater), "Bernie" is set in the small town of Carthage, Texas and as the story opens, there is a brief fantasy-like sequence in which we are given a brief lesson in the art of properly preparing a corpse cosmetically for a funeral by a surprisingly upbeat young man explaining the complications that can be brought on by "lip drift" and the like. This speaker is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) and when we next see him, he is arriving in Carthage, seemingly out of nowhere, and talking himself into a job assisting at the local funeral parlor. Now there are very few people that one could politely say were born to be funeral directors but on the basis of the evidence seen here, Bernie was one of those people and despite being in such a seemingly ghoulish profession, he quickly becomes one of the town's most popular citizens thanks to his friendliness, charitable nature and willingness to volunteer for nearly every cause in town. What does raise some eyebrows in the town is his attempts to bond with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the richest woman in town, in the wake of her husband's passing. For one thing, there had been no small amount of speculation that Bernie, with his theatrical nature, flair with cosmetics and lack of female companionship, was homosexual. For another thing, Marjorie was widely regarded as the meanest woman in town (after taking over her late husband's bank, one local observes that "she would turn down loans as a hobby") and few could understand why he would want to spend any amount of time with her, regardless of how much money she might have possessed. (At this point, those of you unfamiliar with the story may want to check out here as we are about to drift into Spoiler Territory.)
Against all expectations, Marjorie's demeanor begins to thaw and while the exact nature of their relationship is never made entirely clear, she and Bernie are soon practically inseparable and even begin traveling the world together. For a while, everything seems to be going swimmingly but before long, Marjorie's domineering nature returns and Bernie eventually becomes little more than a well-paid servant to her. Even in the face of her increasing intolerance and irrationality, Bernie continually tries to smooth things over but things eventually become too much for him to handle and one afternoon, he impulsively shoots her in the back several times as she is walking to her car and kills her. Instead of confessing to the crime, however, Bernie covers it up by hiding the body and going on as if nothing has happened by paying the bills and claiming that she is out of town on the rare occasions that someone--usually her money manager--actually wants to see her. Several months later, members of her estranged family become suspicious when it seems that no one has seen or heard from her in a while and when a search of her home uncovers her body, Bernie is arrested for murder. It seems like a fairly open-and-shut case for the cocky prosecutor, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), but the town so thoroughly rallies behind the beloved Bernie ("He only shot her four times--not five") that he finds himself in the unprecedented position of lobbying for a change of venue on the grounds that doing it in Carthage would be unfairly beneficial to the defense.
Considering the fact that it does involve a real-life criminal case in which a real woman was shot in the back and had her corpse hidden for months, doing a film like "Bernie" would be a challenging high-wire act for any filmmaker. This is a film in which practically everything is dependent on finding the proper tone to take with the material because if there is even the slightest false step at any moment, the whole thing could fall apart and turn into either a bad Lifetime melodrama or a misfired black comedy that asks us to laugh at things that simply aren't funny. In bringing the story to the screen, Linklater correctly surmised early on that this tale was already as strange and darkly amusing as one could possibly hope for and that any attempts to underline all the weirdness by calling attention to it cinematically would only do harm to the film as a whole. Instead he has chosen a simple, straightforward and generally sunny approach to the material that allows the laughs to emerge organically without ever becoming overbearing. We expect, for example, that the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie and Bernie's attempts to cover up for her absence after killing her will be played for broad and easy laughs but he treats these bits as earnestly and objectively as he observed his characters in such previous films as "Slacker," "Dazed & Confused" and "Before Sunrise." As a result, these scenes are often very funny but they also contain a basic humanity that is increasingly rare in films these days and which gives them an extra layer of depth to boot. Adding to the realistic aspect of the film is Linklater's decision to present it in the form of a half-narrative/half-documentary hybrid, sort of a Southern-fried riff on "Reds," that finds numerous members of the community being interviewed about Bernie, Marjorie and offering commentary on the events that are being staged. From what I gather, these commentators are portrayed by a mix of local actors and actual members of the Carthage community and while I cannot say for certain which ones are which, I will say that their observations make for some of the film's funniest moments, such as the bit when one codger offers up his own version of the Texas state map featuring what he calls "the People's Republic of Austin."
As for the better-known actors, Linklater once again demonstrates a flair for casting that has distinguished his entire career. Of course, he has worked with Jack Black before--it was his "School of Rock" that made Black a full-time movie star--but in the years since that incredibly winning breakthrough, Black has stumbled through a series of fairly dreadful starring vehicles that have tried and failed to properly display his peculiar blend of braggadocio and sweetness (as most of these titles have now been lost in the mists of time, I will spare your memories by not citing them here) and some may doubt that he could ever dial down his persona and give a real performance again. That is exactly what he does here with the role of Bernie, a quiet, nuanced, finely detailed and sublimely hilarious bit of acting that is quite possibly the best work he has ever done as an actor. Make no mistake, Bernie is a bit of an oddball through and through but instead of going for broad, easy laughs, he seems to have recognized at last that less sometimes is more and while he does do an excellent job of portraying that weirdness, he does it in such a way that you can genuinely believe that he would become the center of the community despite his creepy job and the fact that he killed someone. He also manages to strike up a genuine on-screen rapport with screen legend Shirley MacLaine that is unexpectedly winning against all odds. Although MacLaine's role is obviously less nuanced, she gets a lot of laughs as well and even engenders a certain amount of poignancy when she finally begins to emerge from her brittle shell thanks to Bernie. (Perhaps not coincidentally, MacLaine made her screen debut in another film involving a quirky small town and a dead body, Alfred Hitchcock's hilariously genteel black comedy "The Trouble with Harry." As for Matthew McConaughey, the highest praise that I can give to his performance as the increasingly floundering D.A. is that even though I knew going in that he was in the cast, he so effectively blended into his character for once that I didn't even recognize him until maybe his third on-screen appearance."Bernie" is a wonderful film--the kind that you see, embrace and try to encourage others to see at every given opportunity--but it has inevitably raised a few hackles in certain circles. Both the prosecutor of the original case and Nugent's family have complained that by focussing almost entirely on Bernie Tiede and marginalizing Marjorie Nugent as a miserly crank, it paints an unfair and unbalanced portrait of what really happened between them and others have found the notion of transforming a real-life murder case into something comedic is more than a bit distasteful. Obviously, I can't disagree with the viewpoint of the Nugent family but I don't think that there is suggestion here that Richard Linklater intends this film to be some kind of advocacy piece on the behalf of Bernie Tiede. Instead, I suspect that his desire to make a movie about the case was inspired by Linklater reading the "Texas Monthly" article, thinking to himself "That is one of the damnedest stories I've ever heard" and deciding then and there to one day bring it to the screen. Now he has and you know what--it really is one of the damnedest stories that you will ever hear or see.
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