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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.
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.
Tiede is an assistant funeral director in Carthage, and can't be more proud of what he does. He's the man who fixes up the dead to make them look sometimes better than they did alive. Bernie is notorious for connecting deeply with his customers who have come to him after the death of a loved one, and even manages to stay in contact with many of them long after the funeral, dropping by and even bringing them flowers occasionally. He's a genial, kind soul and effortlessly brightens everyone's day. Almost like that guy on the street, at the office, on the bus, or in the neighborhood you don't know personally, don't know their history, or quite possibly even know their name, but you make the humane nuance to wave or say hello to them frequently. Tiede is an ode to that person in your life.
Bernie becomes friends with Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), a wealthy old widow, who is mean-spirited and, after occupying a certain disdain for him, gives into his cheeriness and they begin hanging out with each other. It isn't long before Bernie grows weary of Mrs. Nugent's browbeating comments and shoots her four times in the back. Devastated at what he has done out of pure anger, he manages to conceal the body for months before the district attorney Danny Buck (played extremely well by McConaughey, whose character somewhat resembles Woody Harrelson's cold-blooded cop from Rampart), a cowboy-hatted, tall, and thin man always dapper, becomes suspicious of Bernie. He believes his nice appearance is just a put-on for the heartless deviant he really is.
The character of Bernie is played by Jack Black, in a role that is beyond any description I can helpfully provide. His character needs to be seen. Black takes a character, whose story and personality is likely unknown to many people in 2012, and invents this kind, charismatic person in the blink of an eye. Bernie is perhaps the nicest movie character I have been greeted with this year, and even after he kills an old woman, it's hard to even have harsh feelings for the sap. What he did was wrong, but it has become apparent that when a film features a cold-blooded killer, we are robbed of backstory and reason as to why he is doing this or how he got here. We learn so much about Bernie and his life before the inevitable murder that we almost can't hate the man despite his unforgivable actions.
Richard Linklater, who previously worked with Black in the impressive School of Rock, directs this black comedy with a serene bite, providing it with a rich script, and three lovable performances by three fine actors. Its deep south cinematography reminds me of the kind used in the drama Seven Days in Utopia, only more expressively used and healthier for the tone of the picture, not to mention the involving narrative carried throughout the excursion truly compliments the quiet rural nature of its setting. Bernie is one of the most enthusiastically quirky pictures of the year.
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Directed by: Richard Linklater.
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%
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.
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.