Bernie

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in “Bernie”

Watching “Bernie,” director Richard Linklater’s (“School of Rock”) darkly comic, and apparently true, tale is like sitting on a porch in a small Texas town on a hot summer’s day listening to local gossip while drinking lemonade.  Linklater’s ear for the way people talk is spot on…and maybe it is due to the fact that he is interviewing those who actually knew the real life Bernie Tiede.  The film’s trailer announces right up front that this is true story.

“Bernie” is a film that intelligently combines both narrative and documentary film making techniques to create a story that is a combination of myth and truth. The film stars Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.

Black plays the titular character, an assistant funeral director who is just about the most liked man in small town Carthage Texas.  Bernie can belt out “Amazing Grace” at a funeral, instruct on how to put just the right amount of rouge on a corpse, direct and star in a community theatre production of “The Music Man” and say just the right to convince a customer to purchase a more expensive casket.

Black takes to the role of the over weight, dapper, neat, effeminate, sexually ambiguous (“That dog don’t hunt,” as one of the interviewees so colorfully puts it) Bernie with relish.  Bernie befriends Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy, and much disliked widow.  Local tattlers say that Bernie is probably the only man in town who could tame Nugent, but tamed she is not.  Although she and Bernie become fast friends (the movie could have headed in the “Harold and Maude” direction, but keeps the relationship on a platonic level) Nugent, over time, takes advantage of Bernie’s good nature.  What follows plunges us into darkly comic territory.

MacLaine plays the mean spirited Nugent to perfection.  She is clearly having a grand old time playing the controlling, demanding, rich widow accustomed to having everything her way.  Black matches her energy in a more controlled manner as a nice guy who can be pushed just so far.  Mathew McConaughey rounds out the film as Danny Buck, the local law enforcement who has deep suspicions about Bernie.

When all is said and done, Linklater has crafted a film that falls somewhere between a comedy, a drama, a character study and a real life event crossed with a fish story.  The game cast and real life locals make “Bernie” a most unusual  movie going experience.

Bernie, Director Richard Linklater, 2012,

Millennium Entertainment,  104 minutes, rated PG-13

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on May 17, 2012, in New and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Perhaps my hand weighs down on paper more than your gentle touch — not on Linklater’s work content, but on the style of the product per se. Documentary is a term that carries an archetypal relationship with truth. Of course, to be fair and forewarning, it is also my view that all work is autobiographical, even if documenting someone else’s life. It is, inevitably, one’s perception terminally infused with personal paradigm — conscious or not, (mostly not I dare write). Nonetheless, a documentary that requires production has been in discussion since Nanook of the North. May Margaret Mead forgive, but non-interfering observation has its limitations (and let’s not go into the veracity and romanticism attached to Mead, unfortunately). My point is that thought and analysis should be given to the originality of misrepresentation, maybe as an art onto itself. So, to conclude this somewhat abductive reply, documentary and mockumentary may marry in Bernie, but I would much rather see grazing on truth by the exploration of the unknown which continues to gain space, since Azimov (pick any) to Pulitzer winning Jose Saramago and his Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

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