Bye Bye Bernie
In our post-”Fargo” world it’s tempting to be dismissive of a movie that features murder and cover-up, takes place in a town full of peculiar characters with strong accents, and boldly purports to be based on a true story. “Bernie”, however, proves that there is plenty of room in that set-up for another great movie – with the bonus that this time around, the story is actually true.
Based on an article originally written for Texas Monthly magazine [full disclosure: my household is a subscriber], the screenplay by director Richard Linklater (“School of Rock“) and Skip Hollandsworth (writer of the original article), draws on Hollandsworth’s extensive interviews with the townspeople peripherally involved in the story of the murder of elderly widow Marjorie Nugent by local mortician Bernie Tiede. Rather than setting out to make the serious documentary that might seem more warranted given the situation, Linklater and Hollandsworth instead chose to highlight the absurdity of the opinions and stories woven by the people of Carthage, TX, as they openly and, at times, gleefully, share gossip, conjecture, and commentary on the events that scandalized their town. Could Bernie Tiede really have been such a lovable oaf? Could Marjorie Nugent really have been “pure evil”? As far as “Bernie” is concerned, those questions are irrelevant. Do your neighbors really spend this much time speculating about what goes on behind your closed doors? That’s the real question.
Director Linklater, no stranger to taking a large microscope to small towns, as he did so masterfully in “Dazed & Confused” and “SubUrbia”, cuts-in interviews with the townspeople (some real, some acted) among the action, with generally hysterical results, but still manages to keep the story moving along, thanks for the most part to Jack Black’s (“Gulliver’s Travels“) embodiment of the titular hapless boob, Bernie. Black, who overdoes pretty much anything he has ever been in, actually dials it back to just the right level here, stopping Bernie’s smile just short of manic, his ebullience just short of insanity, and his cluelessness just short of Mr. Magoo. Beloved by the town to the point of beatification, the Bernie that gets sketched in the interviews is a caricature, and Black plays it that way while never quite crossing the line into absurdity. It’s the character of a lifetime for Black and he manages it with a subtlety that’s new to him as an actor. The overly-frequent addition of Bernie’s vocal performances do start to grind, but it’s hard to say if that’s the fault of the director, the screenplay, or Black’s seeming insistence on inserting these sorts of things into all of his films. That being said, he does have a surprisingly pleasant voice.
Shirley MacClaine (“Terms of Endearment”) gets a bit cheated by the screenplay. Her transformation from pleasant companion to the controlling lunatic who drives Bernie to shoot her isn’t shown on the screen, which robs her of what could be a nicely nuanced performance. It makes sense, given the way that the townspeople perceive her, but it’s a shame nevertheless. She does such a nice job of torturing Bernie and making her murder seem totally reasonable that you just want to see more. Kudos also to Matthew McConaughey (“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past“) for sliding into the southern attorney role like it’s an old suit. As local district attorney Danny ‘Buck’ Davidson, he finds the combination of grease, charm, and bravado common to all too many local politicians, while still managing to be the moral compass against which all of the other characters can be measured. As to the rest of the cast, it’s nearly impossible to discern the actors from the actual townspeople, which is either a testament to the actors or a backhanded compliment to the locals.
In “Bernie”, Linklater, Hollandsworth, and the rest of the team turn up the volume just enough to capture the inevitable strangeness of not only small town life but any human society. Carthage, Texas doesn’t come off so well, but are any of our home towns really ready for their close-ups?