Directed by: Richard Linklater
Premise: Based on a true story, a mortician (Jack Black) becomes friends with a wealthy but mean-spirited widow (Shirley MacLaine). The widow’s maliciousness eventually pushes the mortician to the point of murder.
What Works: Bernie is a dark comedy in the mode of Harold and Maude and it is a very funny movie with great performances. The title role is played by Jack Black and this may be the finest performance of his career so far. It is as if the role were tailor made for Black as it requires him to utilize every element of his talent including musical performance, physical acting, and the balance of obnoxiousness and sweetness that he does so well. Bernie is a character who could be insufferable but Black plays the role with such earnestness and authenticity that the character is entirely disarming and the viewer can’t help but find Bernie likable. The film also has a strong supporting performance by Matthew McConaughey as the local district attorney. McConaughey’s role is the opposite of Black; McConaughey is masculine where Black is feminine, self-centered where the other is selfless, and rural rather than urban. McConaughey comes into the action of the narrative fairly late but he is such a presence that he manages to establish his character and be a formidable force in the story. Bernie is a very smartly made film. It is not a pseudo-documentary but it does use elements of that form by including cutaways to interviews of the local townspeople who comment on the action. These small roles are very well cast and they give Bernie a lot of authenticity. Something especially notable about this film is the respect it has for its rural characters. It does not give them a false sophistication but it does not condescend or ridicule small town folk in the way many Hollywood films often do. The most important contribution of the townie characters is in the way they shift the scope of Bernie from a character study of a colorful man in unusual circumstances and into a very complicated portrayal of a community. Dark comedies are about finding humor in tragedy, usually by casting a sardonic gaze on their subject, and the filmmakers of Bernie manage to do that in the circumstances of the murder and the resulting trial. This story flips all expectations on their head and by the end the filmmakers manage to create a thought provoking tale about the way in which we think about murder, depending on who does the murdering, who gets murdered, and under what circumstances.
What Doesn’t: Bernie has the appeal of Christopher Guest comedies like Waiting for Guffman and like Guest’s films Bernie will appeal to viewers with a specific comedic taste. Those who appreciate this kind of film ought to really enjoy it but it may not appeal to a mainstream audience. Bernie does have a few minor flaws in its storytelling as the film is a little too reliant on the interviews to provide narration for the story. At time it becomes intrusive or just states the obvious. The film’s pacing is off a little in the middle of the film. Bernie’s descent from affinity to disdain for the widow occurs very suddenly and could have used a little more dramatization. In this respect, the filmmakers could have used Shirley MacLaine more effectively. She is very good in the picture but she is also underutilized.
DVD extras: Featurette, deleted scenes, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Bernie is an unexpected gem. It is a quirky movie and so its appeal may be somewhat limited but fans of Christopher Guest and Woody Allen should check it out.
Episode: #414 (November 11, 2012)