Tuesday, October 9, 2012
A Rambly Film Review: Bernie (Contains Mild Spoilers)
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay by: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth
Rating: (4/5 Stars)
In my first job after undergrad school, I was a newspaper reporter in a small Southern town. My supervisor, the city editor, once shared his life dream with me. It didn't involve winning a Pulitzer -- he wanted to be a funeral director. This struck me as an odd choice, until he described how he envisioned his role: preparing the details, greeting and comforting mourners, shepherding families through what is inevitably a tremendous life crisis.
That's when I understood that in a small town -- particularly in my native South -- a funeral director is, in some ways, the heart of a community. With the perfect balance of gravitas and reassuring calm, he must guide each family through one of the most painful life transitions they will ever make. Twenty-five years later, with much more experience of death and grief, I understand that more than ever.
This defines the role Bernie (Jack Black) holds in his community. He is an assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, seemingly open-hearted and generous, skilled at comforting the bereaved, and beloved by his neighbors, especially the elderly widows whom he often finds in his care. His is also a pillar of his church. One of those gentle, unassuming people around whom a community revolves in time of need.
When I saw him smoothly selling families on grander, more expensive caskets, I questioned his motives. (I've never understood the need for fancy coffins. And why do you need a warranty on your loved one's casket, to ensure it will remain free of moisture, bugs, and breakage? Is anybody really going to go down there and check?) However, the townspeople of Carthage never seem to question the fact that he had their best interests at heart, and this seems plausible.
Bernie courts Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy widow, who is widely disliked for her abrasive ways, and is taken under her wing. She generously opens her coffers to him and, at the same time, manipulates him, demanding to be waited on hand and foot. When Bernie murders her and goes to great lengths to hide her death, no one suspects him except for the comically overzealous district attorney (Matthew McConaughey). Was Bernie a schemer and cold-blooded murderer who courted an elderly lady for her money then disposed of her? Or a basically well-intentioned, generous man, caught up in difficult circumstances, who made a grievous mistake? This is never clear.
Bernie, which is based on a true story, is an odd hybrid. It's part documentary-style -- it contains interviews of people involved, some of which are allegedly real -- part off-beat drama, and part black comedy. Much of the movie, especially some of the interviews and scenes with townspeople, are hilarious. I also enjoyed Matthew McConaughey's humorous, over-the-top performance as the D.A., Danny Buck.
In my opinion, the true protagonist of this movie isn't Bernie -- it's the town of Carthage. This seemingly quirky, quintessentially Southern town is a character in its own right, and throughout the film, it takes center stage. Having lived all my life and having deep roots in the South, I appreciated this, despite the fact that the film's portrayal of small-town Texan life is, at times, way over the top. (Seriously ... how much taxidermy can they cram into one good ole boy's office?) I regret to tell you that we Southerners are not all as colorful and quirky as the folks you'll see in this movie. However, I saw recognizable shades of realism.
One of the things I found most amusing was Danny Buck's behavior in the courtroom. A necessary change of venue lands a trial in a small community seemingly populated with very simple folk. Buck acts suavely foolish, pretending that only an insufferably pretentious person would know the correct way to pronounce "Les Miserables" or that white wine is generally served with fish. I thought this was dead-on. I am harking back to my days as a small-time news reporter again -- if you ever want to see an educated attorney act like -- in the words of Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds, he isn't "burdened with an overabundance of schoolin' " -- watch him play to a small-town jury. (I'm just one of y'all -- wink, wink.)
There were several stand out performances here, especially by the lead actor. I am not generally a fan of Jack Black, whom I've seen almost exclusively in scenery-chewing comedy roles. However, he played the role of Bernie in a skillful and understated way. I richly enjoyed McConaughey's role. Shirley MacLaine was not at her best, but she still gave a good performance.
I have mixed feelings about Bernie. Overall, this is an enjoyable, though somewhat voyeuristic, film which creates a strong sense of place and offers interesting character development and plenty of dark humor. It felt uncomfortable though, as this was based on an actual murder. However they may have felt about the real-life Marjorie, this family surely didn't want their loss turned into a sideshow. At times, I felt as if we were laughing at another family's expense. I think it would have been better if this story had been fictionalized, with names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty, before being put onscreen.
Nevertheless, I think this film largely achieved what it set out to accomplish. Populated with folks who feel like real people, it's often disturbingly funny, and has created -- in Bernie -- an interesting, ambiguous character. It also offers a seamless blend of quirky drama, dark humor, and small town Southern local color.
Memorable Quote: “That woman would tear you a new three-bedroom, two-bath, double-wide asshole just for nothin’.”
I don't know whether anyone actually talks that way in East Texas. But it kinda seems like they ought to. ;-) Although I live "up North" in Virginia, I'm thinking about adding this phrase to my own lexicon.