Before seeing Bernie, I spent some time listening to the new Tenacious D album, which, for those who might not know, is a comedy-rock duo fronted by Jack Black. This might not have been the best idea. The ridiculousness of everything that Black and his musical partner Kyle Gass convey through their music (aside from the fact that musically speaking, they are actually pretty impressive) can make it difficult to take anything else they do seriously.
That's what made Black's performance in Bernie all the more impressive. While still boasting a bit of that trademark ridiculousness that signals many of his characters, Black's sweet, caring, sexually ambiguous funeral-director-turned-companion-to-the-elderly-turned-house-boy is a character sufficiently unique from the rest of his body of work that it stands out.
In terms of pure acting, I'm not sure I've seen Black better. It's too bad that director/screenwriter Richard Linklater's (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) narrative doesn't come together around Black's fine performance as well as it could have.
Black plays Bernie Tiede, a local funeral director from a small Texas town called Carthage. Bernie is about as good at his job as anyone could ever hope to be. He goes above and beyond the duties asked of him, singing at funerals and even keeping an eye on elderly widows long after the funerals have ended.
Just about everyone in the town (including actual real-life Carthage citizens who are interviewed throughout the film - this is a true story, but more on that later) loves Bernie. He's portrayed as somewhat of a minor celebrity amongst these small town folk. But Bernie encounters his first real test when he handles the funeral of a Mr. Nugent, whose widow Marjorie (a very good Shirley MacLaine) is about as unfriendly as one can imagine.
Undeterred, Bernie sets out to look after Marjorie as he would any other, and as their strange relationship develops, so does Marjorie's control over Bernie's every move.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOLLOW (although they're discussed in the trailer and just about every other review out there). When Bernie reaches his breaking point, he does something just about nobody in Carthage ever imagined he was capable of, and something many of the townspeople still refuse to believe even after a candid confession.
Bernie has to be one of the strangest portraits of a murderer I've ever seen. Bernie is so nice and Marjorie so nasty, that the audience almost doesn't care about his actions. And apparently, neither did several of the real-life Carthage residents who openly say that they would acquit him regardless.
This is likely due to a combination of their love for Bernie and their equally strong hatred of Marjorie. The only one who seems to really grasp what's gone on is Matthew McConaughey's DA Danny Buck. In limited screen time, McConaughey's ridiculous looking and sounding DA, complete with nerdy hairdo and giant glasses, provides a good deal of laughs.
It seems odd that a real-life murder story could be premised largely on laughs, but that's what Bernie is. For the most part, it isn't that material that's funny, but rather the quirkiness of the characters and situations. For much of the first half, the film had a very Coen-brother esque feel to it.
Linklater has said that the film almost didn't get made because the script was boring, and that he had to convince people that it would be the characters and the performances that would make the movie amusing. I can't say I disagree with that.
Despite the fact that the movie has a good deal of laughs and amusing moments that are almost all character-driven, it felt really slow and almost boring at other times, especially as the film neared its conclusion. Personally I think Bernie would have benefited by cutting about 15 minutes of run time.
My biggest issue came with the pseudo-documentary style that Linklater employed, interjecting real and acted testimonial interviews about Bernie and Marjorie throughout the film. Linklater used these segments to basically develop aspects of Bernie's character, all of which could have been conveyed and many of which were conveyed by Black's performance alone.
These segments also made me consistently aware that I was basically being shown a recreation of real events, and it's difficult to become truly invested in or consumed by something that you know is a recreation. Some of the interview segments were among the strongest and funniest sequences of the film, but they took the focus away from the non-"documentary" portions of the film. At the very lest, I wish these sequences hadn't been used as frequently as they were.
Bernie isn't a bad film by any means, it just isn't a particularly good or memorable one.
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