Synopsis: In small-town Texas, the local mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she’s alive.
Stars: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In reviewing the trailer for Bernie, I noted that the promotional material indicated that this was the ‘best performance of Jack Black’s career” which I didn’t feel was saying much. Known for his remedial stooge-like work in unfortunate box office successes, Black has headlined a pile of flops recently which has damaged his star cred so I’m sure he jumped at the title role in Linklater’s Texas set black comedy. Linklater and Black had found success with 2003’s School of Rock and the genial relationship between the two is evident as they navigate a true life tale of murder in a small town.
Based off of an article that appeared in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth (who teamed with Linklater for the screenplay), Bernie plays quite well as a light murder-comedy that skimps on the morals but is filled with so much good-natured local color that you can’t help but be drawn into it. The movie is low-budget, no doubt, and has a bit of a TV movie of the week feel to it which goes along with Linklater’s laid-back directorial style. I can imagine that had this team not been involved we would have seen the same story appearing on Oxygen or Lifetime before the year was out.
If Bernie doesn’t have the most cutting edge material, Linklater is wise to populate every frame of the film with authenticity be it in the production design or the casting. With three stars headlining the picture you’d expect that they would be in the driver’s seat but in truth Black, MacLaine, and McConaughey take the backseat to a parade of local extras (some involved with the real life case) who provide commentary/narration for much of the film. With its documentary-like structure the frank and funny townspeople can let their hair down and say what is really on their mind – which is frequently on-the-nose and hysterical. Their observances of our title character and his unlikely developing relationship with the town meanie are definite highlights of a breezy film. Even when the film moves from courtship to murder to media frenzied trial the tone is bright, spending little time on the finer (read: grisly) details of the case.
As the town DA, McConaughey draws on his Texan roots to fill in the blanks that the script provides for his character. I’m not sure how much of his performance was scripted but McConaughey thrives in roles that allow him to get a little unhinged. While his work in Bernie doesn’t come close to the over-the-top commitment he displayed in June’s gross Magic Mike, McConaughey doesn’t operate at anything less than 100% even in a part that’s a glorified cameo.
MacLaine could play this type of old biddy in her sleep…and she looks half asleep for much of the film. A comic I’m coming to enjoy, Julie Klausner, refers to her as Old Lizard Eyes and that’s an accurate way to describe MacLaine here as she tackles yet another curmudgeon. The relationship she creates with Black does ring true and I appreciated that the film shows them first as friends, then as companions, then as dependants. It’s pretty clear that the woman MacLaine is playing wasn’t well-liked nor sorely missed but the film doesn’t try to justify the murder and it only works because MacLaine brings her right to the edge of hatefulness without making her irredeemable.
Black is still a sticking point for me here. Is it one of his better roles? I think so. Still, I’m not sold on Black’s antics and too much of the film he has the wide-eyed standard Black look that gives off the impression he’s performing a character rather than simply acting. Even if the real Bernie was effeminate I could have done without Black’s wispy/lispy dialogue and his gait that screams “light in the loafers”. Also, Black is allowed to sing more than ten songs in the movie, explained away because of his work with the church…but for my money they could have done without several of them to help the movie keep its pace.
As far as comedies go, Bernie was a nice surprise that is buoyed by a wonderfully perfect cast of townspeople (even the jurors for Bernie’s eventual trial have been picked to perfection) and typically strong direction by fellow Texan Linklater. I feel a lot of love was put into the movie and that really radiates outward into the audience. The subject matter could be a turnoff in lesser hands but ultimately this is a winning jaunt that plays well and flies by.