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Bernie - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: A

It's a shame when a movie like Bernie goes unnoticed. This is a movie worth noticing. May seems like maybe an odd choice for its release date, in the middle of the annual roll-out of tentpole summer blockbusters. It certainly provides nice counter-programming, but who even knows about this movie? I only know about it because I saw a review published. I can only hope that my writing about it inspires others to see it as well.

This is a fascinating mashup of fiction and documentary. Maybe half the film consists of residents of the town of Carthage, Texas offering their opinions of the title character and what transpired. These are actual, real-life residents of the town. They aren't caricatures because they are real, and yet they offer some really great lines -- which were not written by director/co-writer Richard Linklater, a guy long known for his dialogue-heavy scripts. My favorite line comes from a guy referring to a jury selected for a local case in a county 50 miles away: "They've got more tattoos than teeth. There's no a brain in all of them. I wouldn't let them work on my car."

The commentary comes from real people in the town who knew Bernie, but the telling of the story is done by actors. Bernie is played by Jack Black, in possibly his best performance to date. This is a devout church man who is generous to a fault. He gives stuff away constantly, and gets involved in local theatre productions. Jack Black does a ton of his own singing. It's often for very subtle comedic effect, but he's surprisingly good. You wouldn't think you could forget you're looking at Jack Black, but it happens here. You only feel like you're watching Bernie.

And Bernie, this evidently celibate man who spends an inordinate amount of time with old ladies -- they regularly come around to funerals where he works as Assistant Funeral Director -- commits murder. His giving nature gets him wrapped up in the life of one Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) after the death of her husband. This is a woman reviled by the whole town. She's mean and spiteful. For some reason, she reluctantly takes a liking to Bernie, and over the course of the next couple of years, after a lot of first-class travel together, sucks him into a position of dependency.

If there's any real flaw here, it's that Margorie never quite comes across as mean enough. It's a delight to see Shirley MacLaine in such a major role for the first time in ages, but there's a sort of detachment to her depiction. In all the time the movie spends establishing what a great and selfless guy Bernie was, there's no quite enough time spent showing how Marjorie was mean enough to make it understandable for Bernie to snap and shoot her. In the back. Four times.

That said, the focus is on Bernie -- and, more specifically, the town's jaw-dropping capacity for forgiveness in his case. Everyone just loves him so much, they jump to his defense -- even after he willingly confesses to the crime, after nine months of convincing everyone Marjorie is still alive. During that time, she's been kept in her deep freezer. Bernie's reason for not attempting to dispose of the body? He was waiting for the right time to give her a proper burial. In spite of all this, the entire town responds with compassion rather than judgment. This is widely evident in the interviews with locals -- who are real people, remember. They all hated Marjorie. None of them really knew her, so we don't get to either. All that matters, as far as everyone is concerned, is that she was a bitch. It's notable that these are all people who regard themselves as good Christians. Not even the pastor (in this case portrayed by an actor) is exempt.

The District Attorney, Danny Buck, is played by Matthew McConaughey. In his suit and very Southern-lawyer glasses and weird hair and cowboy hat, he's barely recognizable. Buck is so incensed by the citizens of Carthage insisting that they would vote to acquit if they end up on his jury, he manages to get the trial moved to the aforementioned outside county. I don't know if this is really how they looked, but Linklater populates the jury box with fat and frumpy people with Big Gulps in their hands. And still they convict Bernie of first degree murder.

That's not exactly a spoiler. This is a true story, after all. How it ends isn't the point so much as how a guy like Bernie could end up in the predicament he was in -- and how his community responded. This is a guy so well liked that even fairly wide-spread suspicion that he was gay (with no apparent concrete proof) has no effect on his popularity. And Jack Black sells the hell out of it. He's been in way too many movies that failed at showcasing his talents, and this one is practically tailor-made for him. If you want to see proof that Jack Black really has acting chops, look no further than Bernie.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black (R) are the oddest couple in recent memory in BERNIE.

Overall: A-
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