I should preface this review by saying I’m no fan of Jack Black (though I think he sometimes gets an unfair wrap) or Shirley MacLaine (she’s a shrill weird old lady) or Matthew McConaughey (beat your bongos, son). I like some of director Richard Linklater’s oeuvre – most notably Slacker, Waking Life, Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, but he’s made plenty of duds especially when he tries to go mainstream. Suffice it to say I didn’t pay any attention when this foursome got together to make Bernie.
Yet I started to hear some good things – and the plot sounded interesting enough, and I was really bored one Sunday afternoon. So there I was enjoying against all odds this tale of an affable busybody East Texas assistant funeral director (Black – nicely method and oddly endearing), the weird mean rich old bitty (MacLaine – well cast) he befriends, and the cocky country District Attorney (McConaughey – always better at comedy than drama and doing a tongue-in-cheek and dip-in-mouth riff on his own propensity to play impassioned lawyers) out to nail Bernie when the crazy lady turns up dead.
I’ve long made the case that the hardest film genre to pull off is the dark comedy. But there’s a subgenre that’s even harder to pull off – the light dark comedy. Successfully mixing elements of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune and the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, Linklater is spot-on in his delivery of this true-crime comedy. But unlike other lightly satirical films that claimed to be true-crime (most famously Fargo), Bernie is true-blue… and positively Texas. Early on one of the funniest bits is when a fake “real” townsfolk (credit Linklater and his casting director for pulling willing Texans and character actors right off the street to play these interviewees) talks about how Texas is really 5 states in one (well, plus the Panhandle – but nobody talks about that). He goes on to hilariously describe the differences and how only in East Texas and a town like Carthage could a story like Bernie’s unfold. These fake “real” townsfolk are peppered throughout the film as if we’re watching part documentary, part all-star reenactment, and they’re the best part as together they create a vivid picture of place, time and character.
The film is admittedly a little slow-moving, and the second half is bogged down by the procedures of the trial, but even there we still get treated to some biting observations by the Greek chorus of fake “real” townsfolk. It’s painfully obvious that Bernie killed his mean old lady friend (heck, he confesses as soon as they discover he’s hid her body in a freezer for nine months) but he’s so damned beloved in Carthage that the DA doesn’t think he can secure a conviction there . So he gets the trial moved 50 miles away to San Augustine – a place populated by backwoods cousin-lovin’ hicks who one Carthaginian declares he wouldn’t even let work on his car let alone decide something as important as a murder trial.
There are some funny bits in the end where one grotesquely make-up smeared woman declares that she doesn’t even think Jesus could convince her that Bernie was a murderer. Then there’s the loquacious and dramatic old lady who tells Bernie she wrote the warden a letter asking for a work release when it comes time for her funeral so that Bernie could sing over her casket just as he always promised he would. Even more telling over the closing credits are the real pictures of Bernie and his victim and Black speaking to the real-life Bernie in prison. But never do you feel Linklater (a native Texan born in the area referred to as the toxic coast) is making fun of these folks. He’s simply documenting their story and their mind-set – and if humor arises out of these real situations, then that is determined by the interpretation of the audience.
It’s refreshing to watch a film with no agenda other than to tell an interesting, colorful story. In its depiction of a particular place, time and character – Bernie scores on all fronts. It’s the type of little film that in years past would’ve been a modest sleeper hit. In this era of over-saturated multiplexes, fewer art-houses, VOD and Netflix – I’m not sure where Bernie will find its best audience. All I know is it deserves one.
Written by David H. Schleicher