Saturday, June 02, 2012


BERNIE (Richard Linklater, 2011)

Assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), subject of the true-crime comedy BERNIE, is one of the most popular people in the small east Texas town of Carthage.  He’s good at his job and goes beyond the call of duty in following up with new widows to see that they’re getting along OK.  He’s active in church, community theater, and civic organizations.  He’s generous in giving time, money, and knowledge to those requiring help.  

Bernie is so beloved that townsfolk refuse to believe he’s guilty of shooting Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) four times in the back, storing her corpse in a deep freeze, and lying about her whereabouts for months even after he confesses.  If he did do it, she probably had it coming anyway.  Despite the evidence against Bernie, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is at a loss how he can get a conviction.

Why would the local populace consider Bernie blameless?  In addition to being the richest woman in town, Marjorie was probably the most disliked.  She had not been on speaking terms for a long time with a sister who lived in Carthage.  She communicated with her son on rare occasions.  People in the area had the impression that she thought she was better than everyone else.
Bernie and Marjorie were already the talk of the town before the 81-year-old widow’s death at her 39-year-old companion’s hands.  Although he was no stranger to visiting women who’d lost their husbands, Bernie showed extra attention to Marjorie.  She repaid him with gifts far more lavish than anyone thought her capable of giving.  Gossips speculated on who was seducing who.  Before long Bernie and Marjorie were going on trips to New York City and international destinations.  She gave him access to her finances and made him the sole heir to her vast estate.  For all of this Bernie was subject to Marjorie’s beck and call.

With facts that are stranger than fiction and a story surrounding a murder that is often played as dark comedy, BERNIE exists somewhere between an Errol Morris documentary and FARGO.  In lesser hands the resulting film might be terribly offensive, but director Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, walks a fine line that observes the absurdity around the crime without making light of its consequences.  Nothing’s funny about an old woman getting killed.  Plenty is about the community that gleefully speculates about what happened but willfully ignores what is known.
Linklater mixes the fictionalized recreation of events with documentary-like interviews of town residents to create a version of the story through their eyes.  Whether it’s their homespun stereotyping of parts of the state or judgments leapt to from rumors about personal actions, their perception of reality is so ingrained that nothing can persuade them that the truth is otherwise.  Since the people are sympathetic toward Bernie, the film tends to be as well.  Still, for all of the information that is on the record, the two individuals in the middle of all the chatter remain mysteries.

Black dials down his usual routine and turns in one of his best performances.  The part is a perfect fit in which he can play off his everyman likability and musical talents to build someone who enchants everyone with whom he comes in contact.  From what we’re permitted to see Bernie is not a complex character and purposefully so since he’s constructed from how everyone regards him.  To his credit, Black’s expert portrayal of this friendly naïf makes it hard to dislike Bernie even after he kills Marjorie.  Maybe Bernie is a virtuoso con man--one of his community theater roles is Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN--but the impulse is to want to give him some benefit of the doubt.      

McConaughey is a hoot as the showboating DA who provides the voice of reason amid the media carnival.  Wearing glasses, a cowboy hat, and a tie he sometimes uses to wipe his mouth, he plays up his salt of the earth credibility to cast suspicion on Bernie’s cultured ways.

Typically Linklater’s films find him operating in a philosophical mode that encourages contemplating why and how we know what we know.  With BERNIE he humorously explores what happens when those questions aren’t asked.  In the movies it’s funny when empirical belief becomes so rigid that first impressions can’t be altered.  It isn’t when justice is at stake.

Grade: B+

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