Movie Review: Bernie

Richard Linklater has a very interesting film career.  On one hand, he does some mainstream comedy films like School of Rock and Bad News Bears.  On the other hand, he makes bizarre art films like A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, or Slacker.  I can’t put my finger on how he picks his projects.  I think he just kind of does what he wants.  He doesn’t have the most recognizable name in the film business, but he’s had pretty steady output of films (several of the popular, more of them cult hits), and I feel like he doesn’t get his due.  That’s why I’ve wasted a whole paragraph talking about him now.  Also because I didn’t have a good opening line for a Bernie review.

OH, wait!  Wait!  Here we go:

Jack gets Black in this dark comedy about…  ehhhhh.  A little too Gene Shality, maybe.  I’ll just stop while I’m ahead.

Bernie isn’t a film about the life of Bernie Madoff, FYI.  Which I’m surprised hasn’t been made into a major Hollywood production yet.  And to be honest, if for some reason Jack Black played Madoff in a film, I’d probably throw money at the screen demanding a ticket.  But no, Bernie is a true crime story about Texas funeral home worker Bernie Tiede, who befriended an old rich woman named Marjorie, who eventually hired him as her personal assistant.  All went well until she drove him to a breaking point with mental abuse, and he killed her.  Then he proceeded somehow to hide the murder for several months before being caught.  Perfect dark comedy material!

I thought this movie was entertaining as hell.  Jack Black does a great job as the lead.  This is a good movie to watch if you’re someone who normally dislikes Jaybles but is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if the movie looks good.  He never does his typical wacky antics in this film (silly facial expressions, freeform scat singing, playing drums on shirtless belly, etc), he actually plays it perfectly for the role, and has a surprising amount of restraint.  It’s a nice change of pace from that bird watching movie with Steve Martin that I never saw.  But I did see the trailer for it, and it looked JB had gone into full-on Sandler cash grab mode.  But Bernie proves otherwise.  And in an interview a few weeks ago on Howard Stern, Black seemed really, really into the story of Bernie’s life/crime.  Sometimes it’s just comforting to know that an actor is doing a passion project as opposed to a cash grab.  But the part seemed destined to be his.  Now that I’ve seen the film, I can’t picture anyone else playing the part.  The real life Bernie was (apparently) a bit eccentric, flamboyant, and jolly.  And the way that JB harnesses that part of his personality in the character, without ever going “full Jack Black” made this not really his funniest role ever, but certainly one of his most finely acted roles.

The other two big roles in the film go to Shirley MacLaine as the elderly woman, and does a good job going from sweet to sour.  While I think her personality shift was extremely abrupt in the film (I didn’t like that aspect actually, the whole film is gradual development, then BAM! she becomes mean in a matter of seconds), MacLaine does a very good job being a complete asshole to Jack Black, and you can understand why it would make someone crazy.  Matthew McConaughey keeps his shirt on the whole movie (!) as the district attorney who investigates Bernie.  He does fine.  He talks slow and drawn out as usual.  His character isn’t a sleazeball at all, but he still manages to somehow come across as sleazy.

The film is told in a half-straightforward, half-mockumentary style.  Bernie’s timeline is purely narrative.  But then all of the little details and opinions of the small town folk where the murder occurred are told in a documentary interview style.  I’m not sure how authentic the interviews are or not, as to whether or not they were actual townsfolk or hired actors.  At one point a couple of them are interacting in scripted dialogue with McConaughey, so I assume maybe *some* of them were actors?  I don’t know, but they were fucking hilarious.  They were the best part of the movie.  Just a bunch of simple people giving their opinions on everything, and they *all* have opinions.  Very strong opinions.  Very funny stuff.  I think my favorite scene in the whole movie was an old man comically explaining to the audience all of the different regions of Texas.  It was such a gratuitous bit to put in the final cut of the film, but it was great to watch.  In retrospect, I think this film’s best achievement was its genuine portrayal of a very specific slice of American life.

I think my only real criticism of the film is that it came across to me as a great story, as opposed to a great film.  You know what I mean?  I almost want to say that just explaining in detail all of the aspects of this story to someone would be just as interesting as watching Jack Black play it out.  That being said, it’s all assembled here in a nice little package, and it has plenty of touches of flair throughout, but it’s not something I would call a monumental achievement in film.

Sooooooo…  as my wishy-washy conclusion to this review…  super interesting story, pretty good yet not amazing film, great Jack Black performance, and I would recommend it to most people.  The screening I went to was swamped with elderly people, and they loved the shit out of it.

8.5 out of 10

Enjoy this awful trailer that seems like it’s from the 1990s:

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