Don't Overlook It: Bernie
A Gem From One of the Kings of Indie Comedies
By Tom Houseman
May 9, 2012
Every week there are great movies released in theaters, but they get no attention and never have a chance to reach an audience. They are rarely released on more than ten screens, only in New York City and Los Angeles, and have no advertising, but they are works of art that deserve to be seen. That’s why I started this column. It’s a way for me to spread the gospel about the great independent films, foreign films, and documentaries that don’t get the attention they deserve from the movie-going public. So in between summer blockbusters, you can find out about some great movies that are barely being talked about. Until now!
If there is one director who can challenge Stephen Soderbergh for the most diverse career, Richard Linklater is that director. While Linklater has largely focused on comedies over the last 20 years, his films have been about everything from intimate relationships to social issues to abstruse philosophical concepts. But with his latest film, Linklater simultaneously has found a way to both branch out into new territory and return to his roots, and the result is not only one of the best films of his career, but a perfect example of why Linklater should be considered an auteur on par with Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant, if not necessarily in terms of talent, but certainly in terms of vision.
Linklater is as defined by his Texas roots as much as Woody Allen is defined by New York, and just like Slacker was about the culture of Austin, Bernie is about the world of East Texas, where Linklater grew up. Bernie is a biopic about a mortician who befriended and eventually murdered a wealthy woman in the town of Carthage, Texas. Linklater wrote and directed the film as an oral biography, with the narrative moved forward largely through interviews by townspeople, all of whom are played by East Texan non-actors. Through their interviews we learn about the town of Carthage and the reputations of both Bernie, who was beloved, and Marjorie, who was loathed, and how these reputations affected the reactions of the townspeople to the murder.
Considering that in small towns in Texas everybody knows everybody, and gossip is practically currency, this is the perfect way to convey not just the facts, but the tone of a story like Bernie. The characters and situations seem at times simultaneously cartoonish and realistic, and suck us into this true story. None of the characters are traditionally funny or clever, but their blunt honesty and odd turns of phrase evoke countless laughs, and they are a joy to watch, whether they are gushing about their love of Bernie or dishing the dirt on anyone or anything they happen to not like. The story unfolds very slowly, but these interviews make the deliberate pace of the film more effective, as Linklater uses the local color to keep Bernie from ever dragging.
It is certainly a refreshing change of pace to see Jack Black actually act, since his film career has largely consisted of him being his outrageous self. As the eponymous anti-hero, we see a sweetness and gentleness in Black that is either hidden or nonexistent in his other roles, and his movements and voice are reminiscent of Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman. Bernie is such a selfless, charitable man, often at his own expense, and Black makes him a character worthy of both admiration and pity. While his accent wanes on occasion, especially when he sings, Black's physical transformation into the effeminate, good-natured Bernie makes it is as easy to forgive his faults as it was for the people of Carthage to forgive the character.
Equally impressive in their physicality are Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. MacLaine's Marjorie is the polar opposite of Bernie, and watching the gruff, cold Marjorie grate against the warm, kind Bernie is so much fun to watch. MacLaine is the most experienced actor in the film, and you can see her mastery of her craft in every eyebrow raise and harsh tone. All McConaughey has to do is bring his Southern swagger to the screen, which he does superbly. As the aggressive district attorney, McConaughey stands in stark contrast to the gentleness of almost every other character. Always at his best when he is playing a slimy jerk, McConaughey combines a stern glare with Southern charm, wiping his mouth with his necktie with such self-assurance that you can't help but smile.
Bernie is Richard Linklater's way of showing that he is going to continue to challenge himself to grow as a storyteller, even 20 years after his feature debut. He's telling a story that is inherently Texan, and as such can only be told effectively by someone who has been immersed in that culture. Just as the book Friday Night Lights was as much about West Texas culture as it was about a season of high school football, Linklater uses Bernie's story to allow anyone, even someone who has never stepped foot in the lone star state, to gain insight into what life is really like in a small town in East Texas. Independent films allow us to explore a world that is foreign to us, even if it takes place in our own country, and if someone were to make a list of film's that put magnifying glasses over specific pockets of American Culture (which sounds like an awesome idea and probably a column I will write at some point), they would have just gotten a new entry, and a slight, sweet, hilarious one at that.