Wednesday, December 26, 2012
BERNIE Is Clever Comic Satire
- Bernie is a really cool little movie from Richard Linklater, a director whose work I always admire and who never fails to take chances and dare to be different. With BERNIE, Linklater re-teams with his School of Rock star Jack Black, but this time, Black plays very much against type. Black is Bernie Tiede, a sweet, soft spoken, kindly, beloved pillar of his community - the tight-knit community of Carthage, Texas. This darkly comedic film - based on a true story - explores what happens when Bernie, Carthage's favorite son, is accused of murdering bitter, mean old Marjorie Nugent, its most hated woman. Linklater weaves a meticulously-crafted, pitch black, Southern-fried satire here - crafting a memorable morality play that also bursts at the seams with local flavor and detail.
Bernie is shot in a blend of styles. We see the action play out in a series of flashbacks to various points in Bernie's life in Carthage, but the entire narrative is framed with mockumentary-style talking heads, used as a Texas-sized Greek chorus of commentators. As the revolving cast of Carthage locals provide their recollections of Bernie, we'll flash to those moments and see them play out. What makes this work so well is just how authentic-seeming it all is. The characters are over-the-top and exaggerated, sure, but there's also a lovingly-specific quality to them that brought to mind the eccentrics of Christopher Guest's various mockumentary films. It doesn't hurt that all of the actors that portray the interview subjects are just fantastic. I'm not sure to what extent any of them are locals, but it sure feels like most of them are.
As for Black, he helps make Bernie into a fascinating character. Essentially, Bernie is this very odd, almost asexual guy who helps run the local funeral parlor. But he also leads church choir, directs and stars in local theater productions, and essentially devotes his life to improving the community. He's nice to everyone, and even if he's a little eccentric, everyone loves him and admires all the good that he does. Bernie even makes it a habit to visit the homes of the recently-widowed and present flowers and gift-baskets personally. It's in this way that he meets Marjorie - a mean, nasty woman who rejects Bernie's friendly gestures at first, but gradually warms up to his kindness and offers of companionship. Suddenly, the two become an unlikely pair of friends. But the friendship evolves into a weird, master-slave sort of relationship, as the ever-demanding and controlling Marjorie pushes the eager-to-please Bernie to his breaking point.
Back to Black though, he really is fantastic as Bernie. There's an amazing scene that opens the movie that really sums up the character, with Black demonstrating to a room full of students the proper way to dress a corpse for burial. Things that might gross out an ordinary person don't faze Bernie, and he meticulously attends to every detail of the dead body as if working on a painting for a gallery. Immediately, we realize that Bernie is sort of a strange fellow, but at the same time, you've got to admire his dedication to his craft. Soon, we begin to realize that that same dedication extends to everything that Bernie does.
A couple of other actors really stood out to me in this one. Aside from the amazing bit players who fill out the cast as interview subjects, a real highlight is Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck, the smooth-talking lawyer who becomes a controversial figure when he becomes the man hired to prosecute Bernie. McConaughey is great here - and subtley hilarious. Buck, the alpha-male Texan, seems a bit baffled by Bernie's effeminate good-naturedness, and that makes him even more determined to see him put away. Meanwhile, as Marjorie, Shirley MacLaine is also excellent. Marjorie is a darkly comic character - just a horrible woman who only gets more horrible the nicer Bernie is to her.
Linklater crafts a quirky but very clever film here. So many movies are black-and-white moral exercises ... I found it fascinating to watch this story that poses the question - what if a man commits murder, but nobody could possibly blame him? Directed with a sharply satirical comic flair, and with a meticulous eye for detail, BERNIE is another fine film in Linklater's storied career.
My Grade: B+