BERNIE


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The fun and often entertaining Bernie is one of those truth is stranger than fiction films, a story based on odd, but real life events that no one would have heard of if someone hadn’t made a movie about it (you know, like Conviction and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio).  It was written by Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater (who also directed) and Linklater certainly lets his Texas roots show by cleverly and with affection (as well as more than a drop here and there of condescension and superiority) in his playing up of the redneck citizens and the very, very Lone Star values that reside in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  The title role is played by Jack Black.  I always think of Black as the actor you use when you can’t get Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti (I can come up with no other reason for Peter Jackson miscasting him in King Kong).  But though Black never really becomes Bernie and plays him as a bit of a cartoon, this is definitely one of Black’s best performances (it probably helps that Bernie himself was probably something of a cartoon).  Bernie is the nicest guy in the world: deeply religious, a brilliant casket salesman, director and star of the local community theater, and friend to all, especially the older ladies in the area (or as many of the characters remark, probably gay, but celibate).  But this mini-Da Vinci of a Renaissance man finds his match in Marjorie Nugent, the Wicked Witch of the East (Texas) who treats him like a pet dog she constantly abuses (and like an abused pet dog, Bernie keeps coming back and licking his mistress’ hand).  As a result, something happens that shocks one and all, no one more so than Bernie himself, though the humor of the story rests on the idea that in the end, shocked or not, no one really wants to do much about it.  The story is told in a serious mockumentary style.  The plot itself is interspersed with interviews of people who were there.  Many of these interviewees are actors, but most are the actual people that lived in Carthage at the time.  Most of the actors blend in almost seamlessly with the locals, especially Rick Dial (who played a similar role in both The Apostle and Sling Blade).  The big exception is Matthew McConaughey, the local D.A.  It’s not that his performance is bad, it’s just so different and over the top and, well, actorly from everyone else’s naturalism, that he sticks out like a Sunday ham.  Even Shirley McClaine as the wicked witch plays the part as if she were to the suburban tract house born.  Pinched face and without a hint of Hollywood glamour, she gives a performance that is often called brave (no make-up or cheesecloth over the lens for this veteran of Hollywood movies co-starring David Niven, Jack Lemmon and Meryl Streep).  But in the end Linklater and Hollandsworth never go deeper than skin.  By the time it’s all over, one’s not quite sure why the film was made and it feels like a joke without a punchline.  Even a trial sequence seems so wasted, nothing of any significance happens during it, one wonders why Linklater bothered to shoot it and waste money on extras.  But you probably won’t be disappointed; it’s genial and quirky and all the other twelve points of indie film law.

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