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Casting Jack Black in the title role of this 2012 dark comedy turns out
to be a masterstroke on the part of director and co-screenwriter
Richard Linklater because the real-life character of Bernie Tiede is a
comically ambiguous figure not only sexually but more to the point, as
a jovial child-man personality beloved by his small Texas town of
Carthage while at the same time, strangely insistent in his constant
presence in their lives. His pointed need for universal acceptance and
unconditional love is what makes Bernie unique as a screen creation. It
takes Black's oddly discomfiting screen persona to make the character
work as a protagonist of closeted complexity, and in turn, he delivers
his most accomplished screen work to date. No stranger to Texas-size
guffaws intermingled with wry observations about human nature, the
versatile Linklater ("Before Sunrise/Sunset") tells this
hard-to-believe, true-crime story with both morbid humor and surprising
Based on a seriocomic 1998 Texas Monthly article by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, the plot revolves around the unlikely relationship between Bernie, a relentlessly thoughtful assistant funeral director, and Marjorie Nugent, recently widowed and one of the richest women in Carthage. As Bernie becomes indispensable to the fabric of the community with his acts of charitable kindness, his Broadway-style choir solos, and his gentlemanly way of comforting widows in the throes of their grief, the ever-scowling Marjorie is always ready for battle with not only the townsfolk who impede on her life but even her immediate family who can't stand her. Bernie, however, is able to breakthrough her icy veneer with his cheery persistence, and their relationship evolves into an unhealthy codependence to put it mildly. As Marjorie lavishes Bernie with expensive gifts and luxurious vacations, she grows increasingly manipulative in her need to control his every move to meet her every need.
Even Bernie has his limits about what he is willing to do under her iron fist, and needless to say, consequences ensue. For all the dire consequences, Linklater keeps the mood buoyant with the insertion of intertitles to signal what question the movie will address next and with the brief interviews he includes with both actors and true residents of Carthage, all showing their unqualified support of Bernie through his burgeoning troubles. Much like Warren Beatty did in "Reds", Linklater uses them as a cumulative Greek chorus who on one hand, provide some of the film's biggest laughs, and on the other, illustrate just how myopic and oppressive a small town can be in its rumor mongering ways, so much so that Bernie's trial has to be moved fifty miles away in order to allow the light of objectivity to filter into the proceedings. As Bernie, Black finally has a multi-dimensional role that fits him perfectly, and I would be hard pressed to identify anyone else who could have played the character to the seriocomic depths he achieves here.
Well into her seventh decade of movie stardom, Shirley MacLaine is not particularly challenged in portraying Marjorie's sourpuss nature since she's been playing variations on the same role since her turn as the ornery Ouisa in "Steel Magnolias". However, in one key scene, she lets loose all her insecurities that exposes the impenetrable cage in which she has put the increasingly desperate Bernie. Linklater favorite Matthew McConnaughey ("Dazed and Confused") plays the showboating district attorney Danny Buck with gusto, although I wish he was reined in a bit more to provide more of a contrast to the other two principal actors. The movie is a fascinating meld of the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" and Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude" with an unexpected dose of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries. While Linklater does not completely avoid making Carthage the object of ridicule, he has made a black comedy with surprising resonance when all is said and done, especially when you see the real Tiede in an archival video clip at the end.
"Bernie" is a nice surprise by Richard Linklater and Jack Black - the
same team that brought you 2003's comedy hit "The School of Rock"; now
they have reunited for a different type of comedy - a dark one.
Black acts differently in this movie - more restraint, more focused, and at times more intense than in any other film he's done before. His humor here is low-key and not physical a feat done with his absorbing performance. Here is a guy who is loved by everyone - who must be loved by everyone, and who can never say no. It is both an interesting and challenging role for him but he pulls it off in a great way - perhaps paving the way to more challenging and dramatic roles in the future. Compared to other comedy film actors who tried more serious turns, he's not yet as terrific as say, Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show" or Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love" - but he's on the right track.
Shirley MacLaine is also very different here - she has a sweet, somewhat cheeky personality in many of her previous films of late, but for this movie there's a cold, demeaning aura around her, and her steely eyes sell it. Matthew McConaughey as the ruthless district attorney has certainly improved in his acting range - just check out the courtroom scenes.
I really appreciate the small-town setting of the film. The film is told by ''interviews'' with the friendly small-town folk, giving a quirky and homely feel to the film, while at the same time Linklater smoothly meshes narrative flashbacks into it - which brings me to the editing. The film moves at a strong clip and never feels rushed nor draggy. The above-average screenplay has balances just the right amount of screen- time to establish the story and characters, notably Bernie. Just when you think the film is about to end - there's always another interesting thing happening that keeps the audience glued.
Black and Linklater make a good, promising actor-director team. Perhaps Linklater will be the key to unlock Black's potential in acting. Of course, this is still a ''little'' movie - a low budget, and scarcely any promotion at all... so hopefully word of mouth spreads just how very good this dark comedy is.
P.S. I was not aware that the film is based on a true story. That made the film even more dark and quirky than it was supposed to be.
Overall rating: 77%
Don't you hate it when you see a funny movie and think at the end, wow, that could have been so much funnier? This movie really is funny, and Jack Black is kind of brilliant at being this man who has incredible generosity and a quirky kind of social skill to be everyone's favorite. And who ends up taking care of the richest woman in town, getting his name on her will, and so on, as you can guess.
To get the gags and to give a sense of documentary reality, clips of interviews with colorful townsfolk of all types are shown, and they are some of the funniest moments. When these same people are shown again and again there is a sense of welcome familiarity--an update on things from a known face--but also a sameness to the movie. It falls into a pattern. And it's a major part of the movie, with thirty of these talking heads, so naturally the momentum of the main plot is slowed down often. As the events become more extreme, the movie does not. It plods along, relying on some great idiosyncratic acting and the weird (and exaggerated?) East Texas culture.
But Black inhabits his character so well it's scary. The other big name (the biggest name) is Shirley MacLaine, who doesn't actually have that much to do (most of the time she is silent, just ominous or dour). And she of course doesn't make it through the whole film (the trailer and teaser give away too much on that score). The third name is Matthew McConaughey, and he's predictably fun and funny, though he blends in with lots of other unknown characters who are also fun and funny.
So it's the scenario, and some funny writing, that carries the day. Well done stuff. Director and writer Richard Linklater is a curious talent, a little all over the map but good at several things, including just being offbeat enough to seem like the Indie director he once was. His pair of movies "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" are growing into unlikely classics (I like them both a lot) and yet he is also known for lesser comedies like "Dazed and Confused" and now this one.
Yeah, see this for some good laughs. The beginning will seem a little like a lame "Six Feet Under" episode, but stick with it. Black's character is utterly convincing, and funny. A good time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After reading Rolling Stone's account of the actual crime, framed by the filming of this movie, I walked out of the theater disappointed. The story of Bernie and Majorie is poignant and makes a good magazine read but is not extraordinary or compelling enough for book-length treatment or psychoanalytic examination. But it certainly could serve as a great topic for a black comedy sprinkled heavily with suspense and allowing the cast plenty of poetic license. In planning for such, Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine are perfect casting choices. Instead, here's what you get: Thirty, maybe FORTY percent of BERNIE is interviews with actual townsfolk or actors which, instead of supporting the storyline, plot, etc., actually interrupt what little movement is achieved. If sometimes humorous, the cuts to interview eventually become groan inducing and are so pervasive that the dramatic portions take a backseat. Its like watching an A&E documentary with short "dramatic reenactments" peppered in. As such, neither Black nor MacLaine get to "take off" and get no chance to inhabit their characters. There's nary any effort to depict how Bernie and Majorie "bonded". Comic opportunities with their road trips are wasted. In short, BERNIE should have been seen as a great opportunity to entertain us with good writing, acting and movie making. Instead, it chooses to take very seriously a real-life tragedy that simply does not rise to the level of great stuff.
Although uneven and at times unfocused, Bernie is the kind of movie
that hitches its wagon to the charisma of its star and goes along for
the ride. Jack Black plays a solicitous, generous assistant
funeral-home director in a small town who quickly gains the love and
respect of the town, particularly the elderly folks, as he immerses
himself into their lives. Black leaves the slapstick and crudity at
home and instead goes the route of Ben Stiller in Greenburg, although
not quite as dramatic, and he's really good in the role. In the end,
though, one might wonder what the point of the movie was, and for a
comedy - even a dark one - there are a lot of unanswered questions at
Bernie arrives in town and lucks upon a job at the local funeral parlor. He takes great care in making the deceased look as good as possible, from trimmed eyelashes to the positioning of the hands and head. Bernie takes his job seriously. He runs the funerals, leading the mourners in song, reading from the Bible, and so on; he comforts the widows and does all he can to ease their pain. He's a true find, right?
One of these old biddies is Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a despised, bitter older woman who has money and no friends whatsoever. All overtures to communicate and bond with Mrs.Nugent by the town are for naught. Except for Bernie, who - as his custom - pays his respects after the funeral to the new widow. After the second visit, she invites him in, and over some time they become friends. The change in Mrs. Nugent is remarkable; she is a nicer person and much happier. She and Bernie go on vacations and other trips together. Finally, she feels, someone who does not hate her.
Mrs. Nugent gets Bernie to quit his job at the funeral home and work for her part time - essentially as a servant. Seems like a sweet deal at first, but eventually she becomes paranoid that he'll leave her at any moment, and he becomes concerned that she's turning into quite the possessive witch. That, as the synopsis might tell you on other sites - this is not a spoiler - induces him to perform a most heinous deed.
The story is told in the framework of a documentary, with on-camera exposition provided by the town's denizens. Most are gossipy, but none of them stand out as mean-spirited - just normal folks, as they might say. About the only two characters who don't open up to the camera are Bernie and Mrs. Nugent themselves. This little trick by director Richard Linklater helps not only move the plot along but also serves us sometimes conflicting information, depending on the source - even when we see things with our own eyes.
The first half of the story is amusing, mostly about how wonderfully generous Bernie is to everyone. And then the crime occurs, and the various citizens react differently. But here's the rub - Bernie is such a magnificent guy, there are some who don't even care if he IS guilty. Star district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) has an open-and- shut case, complete with a confession. All that remains is the trial and the aftermath.
This is more of a character study - of Bernie alone - than anything else. It could have been played for sharp laughs or even as a suspenseful thriller. Linklater plays it more or less straight, essentially saying, "Here's your man, here's what others think of him, what do you think?" And indeed, what are we to think? There are some head-scratching questions by the end. Here's a non-spoiler one: Why was Bernie even in that town? Did he choose it randomly? Did he premeditate the events that unfolded? Okay, three questions, but all valid. None will ruin the movie for you. See it for Black and MacLaine and a realistic look at small-town Texans.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you like dark comedies by all means find a way to see "Bernie". I do and I loved it. This little gem has everything going for it. The witty script by Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater incorporates documentary elements to hilarious effect in recounting the true story of what happens in a small Texas town when a sunny, jovial funeral cosmetician, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) starts up a relationship with the town's wealthy, old curmudgeon, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). These two characters evoke memories of Mister Rogers and Anne Ramsey of "Throw Momma From the Train". Black gives a great performance. It's a perfect marriage of actor and role down to the smallest detail. Screen legend Shirley MacLaine, who specialized in playing sweet, vulnerable ingenues in her early career, scores as a woman so mean she makes Leona Helmsley look like Mother Theresa. Matthew McConaughey shines in a supporting role as a cynical prosecutor convinced that beneath Bernie's good-natured exterior lies a heart of darkness. Director Richard Linklater does an excellent job of taking a grim subject and turning it into a wryly observant look at contemporary life and mores.
Jack Black could not be surpassed in his spot-on perfect role as a
smooth, calm, perfectly groomed and organized, sycophantic, servile,
gay/asexual "assistant funeral director" in this small East TX
community composed mostly of country oddballs and other distinctive
rural folk that were hilarious in their own right. The story was based
on real events, and real townspeople who knew the real Bernie were used
for extras/characters, and some were so good that it was clear that
they could have been real actors if they had chosen that direction
instead of staying in Carthage, TX and knowing the real Bernie. They
gave hilarious insights into Bernie and his story that otherwise would
not have been so uniquely entertaining and effective if actors were
Jack as Bernie exposed some serious singing/dancing chops too, as he not only was a meticulous funeral home star, he also starred in church and social activities that only someone who had his great talent to please and entertain in his heart could ever do. But, Bernie perhaps showed his greatest talent as the only person in town who could tolerate and even befriend Mrs. Nugent(a really old Shirley MacLaine), the town's presiding meanest old bitch. After he slowly became irreplaceable to her by always agreeably doing her ridiculous bidding, she hired Bernie to travel the world with her on her dime and to be her personal manservant/slave, which sadly decomposed to a low point where the shocking and unbelievable event that caused Bernie's downfall was sure to happen.
This hilarious mockumentary is making a serious surge to the head of the line for "Best Movie of 2012 So Far". Don't miss it.
I never thought Id be writing an appreciation of Jack Black as an actor, as he generally appears in limited roles as a boorish loudmouth, but in this dark, often sweet oddball satire, his performance as the titular character is never over the top, always gentle and subtly directing the viewer to a sympathetic portrait of a killer. Really outstanding in this sharp observational film is the sharp ensemble work by everyone in the cast, a huge supporting cast, some actual folks from Carthage, Texas, each giving a positive spin on character, with Matthew McConaughey continuing his string of outstanding portrayals--this film, Magic Mike, and the new Oliver Stone film shows he is much more than the usual goofy sex symbol And although her role is the kind Shirley MacLaine could do in her sleep, she makes wealth and privilege seem absolutely frightening in her chilly portrayal of a spoiled heiress we want to watch. I was also impressed by the end titles, which allow us a glimpse of each actor and the role played. This is 98 minutes of delight, a worthwhile satire combined with the creepy qualities of a true oddball character portrait!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Bernie' is based on a true story about Bernie Tiede, an assistant
funeral director, who comes to the small town of Carthage, Texas and
endears himself to its residents. Ironically, there's a scene later in
the film, where Bernie becomes involved in a local community production
of 'The Music Man', playing the beloved con man, Harold Hill. Bernie
essentially becomes a modern day con man and just as the residents of
the fictional town of River City fell for the sweet charms of the
smooth-talking Hill (and later forgave him for his transgressions), the
same happened with Bernie Tiede in Carthage. But while Hill was guilty
of larceny and impersonation, Bernie ended up guilty of much more!
'Bernie' is shot in the style of a pseudo-documentary, with some of the actual townspeople in Carthage, periodically recounting both their impressions of their former neighbor as well as the events that led to his downfall. The odd thing is that they never had a bad word to say about him. Quite the contrary, the community seems to have regarded Bernie as the nicest guy that ever came to their small town.
Bernie's strategy for endearing himself with the community is to go the extra mile in his position as assistant funeral director. Even after the funerals are over, he'll go over to the widow's homes and bring them flowers. He also ingratiates himself with the men of Cartharge by helping them with tax advice. Before you know it, just about everybody in Cartharge knows who Bernie is, and loves him to the hilt.
Bernie has a penchant for spending a great deal of money on credit and develops a habit of giving out presents to various townspeople. His ship comes in when he meets Marjorie Nugent, an extremely wealthy widow, who is hated by just about everyone in town, due to a bad case of unrelenting meanness. Nugent makes Bernie her personal assistant and eventually drives him crazy with her need for constant attention. SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. She berates him and nags him to the point where he impulsively shoots her in the back four times with one of her own rifles. Bernie stuffs the body in a freezer and pretends she's still alive. As Marjorie was so disliked in the community and had no communication with her relatives, it took about nine months before her stockbroker managed to convince the police to search the house.
The humor in 'Bernie' is due to the myopic view of the townspeople. Because Marjorie was so hated and Bernie, so beloved, most of the people in Carthage are willing to forgive him for his 'sins'. Some even go so far to insist that Bernie is innocent, despite his immediate confession to the police. When the District Attorney has Bernie's trial moved to San Antonio, Bernie's defense attorney bemoans the fact that this is the first time in his career that a trial is moved because the defendant's peers view him as innocent. Carthage townspeople end up expressing anger and frustration toward the San Antonio jury, who in their eyes, are unable to understand why Bernie is such a 'good guy'.
The performers here are a hoot, particularly Matthew McConaughey as DA Danny Buck Davidson. Jack Black transforms himself into a gay charmer turned murderer with aplomb and Shirley MacLaine, in a limited role, conveys the wealthy widow's narcissism to a tee. But it's the actual people of Carthage that steal the show and make this offbeat indie, highly entertaining.
'Bernie' begins to slow down at the end, as there are few surprises when he's put on trial and the defense attorney is no match for the wily District Attorney. But Bernie's story on the whole is quite engrossing not only as a fascinating character portrait but for its analysis of how an entire group of townspeople is seduced, leading to a breakdown of their moral compass.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I sat down to watch this film at 2am--assuming I'd just watch a little
and then go to bed. However, I just couldn't stop watching. And, soon
my wife joined me and she, too, stayed up WAY later than she planned.
Why? Because this film is fascinating from start to finish and is truly
unique. It's the true story of Bernie Tiede and his BIZARRE, and
eventually fatal, relationship with Marjorie Nugent--a woman hated by
just about everyone--and eventually by Bernie as well. Now here's the
rub--despite Bernie having killed Marjorie, no one in the town seemed
to really think this was a bad thing. After all, the folk thought that
she WAS a horrible person and, if Bernie did do it, it couldn't have
been THAT bad! After all, they reasoned, he's such a wonderful and nice
Had this been all there was to the story, it really wouldn't have been that entertaining (though it would have been pretty bizarre). However, the filmmaker (Richard Linklater) constructed the film in such a wonderful way that the film cannot help but hook you. In a WEIRD move, he has many of the actual townsfolk interviewed and inserted throughout the film. A few were actually actors--most were just folks who loved Bernie and couldn't stand Marjorie and wanted to talk about it! And so, the film consists of these interviews as well as actors playing out the story--making it a documentary...of sorts. It also helped Linklater and the movie that the actors, particularly Jack Black, did a wonderful job. And, is helped that the writers (one of which was Linklater himself) did such a dandy job. In particular, I loved how the film got the sound of the Southern Bible Belt folks. I am VERY familiar with this region and the conversations they had made me laugh because they sounded so true--such as the women in the Bible study who were debating if Jesus turned the water into REAL ALCOHOLIC wine! I also adored the guy who described the various regions at the beginning of the film--priceless and VERY funny--especially when he was describing Austin!
So, how truthful is the film? Well, according to an article that my wife and I read by one of Marjorie's relatives, VERY true and very realistic. I was surprised that they didn't complain about how horrible she and the other family members seemed in the film! And, they, too, thought Bernie was a nice guy despite his having murdered Marjorie!
By the way, if you get a chance, you can read through Bernie Tiede's web blog--all the way from his prison cell! Surprisingly, it seems (according to the web pages) that he has a LOT of support for his release--including from Black and Linklater. Weird.
Overall, a brilliantly made and highly original film. I have no idea if the film will be nominated for any awards, but it should. Linklater and Black deserve some recognition for this movie.
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