Directed By: Richard Linklater
Written By: Skip Hollandsworth, Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Fact is always stranger than fiction. That statement has been a part of our popular lexicon for as long as I can remember. Even with its common use the factual nature of that statement has gone relatively unexamined. While that is not the exact purpose of Richard Linklater’s Bernie it is a welcomed side effect. In Bernie Linklater tells the story of Bernie, an eccentric funeral director that completely takes over a small Texas town. Instead of presenting this story in a normal biographical framework Linklater uses a combination of actors and real life townspeople by weaving them in through documentary style interviews and actual scripted scenes. With this blend of fact and possibly fiction we get a fascinating portrait into the world of Bernie and the unbelievable life he lives.
Jack Black plays the title character in what is easily the best performance of his career thus far. He portrays Bernie with this sheer earnestness that perpetuates a sense of benevolence towards the entire world around him. Part of you feels this gleeful attitude is just a clever ruse, but it is so addicting you welcome the chance to fall in line to play a part in it. Bernie arrives in the small Texas town of Carthage when a job opens up for Assistant Funeral Director. When he enters the position he becomes the talk of the town due to his eccentric personality and extraordinary people skills. He has a knack for comforting the grieving, especially the elderly widows. His reach goes far beyond the funeral home as he becomes embedded into almost every element of the town. Perhaps his greatest skill is his showmanship that is best displayed through his singing. Linklater makes a point to showcase this talent in a number of memorable scenes. Overall his direction was spot-on and this is just one example. The moments of Bernie singing could seem nothing more than fodder, but they really resonated with me. It was a perfect peek into this character and his mindset. It was the first time you really see what makes him tick.
Surely being an eccentric character in a small town isn’t all that outlandish of a story. The story does begin to pick up when the resident town hag Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine, enters the picture. Mrs. Nugent is described by the town’s folk as purely the meanest wretch in town. Shirely MacLaine handles this role perfectly as the woman who was plainly ‘born old’. After the death of her wealthy husband she finds a friend in Bernie, who she claims is the only one ever to be nice to her. Bernie and Mrs. Nugent become the oddest of the odd couples. To Linklater’s credit he keeps the complete nature of their relationship at bay. We are unaware of where exactly this partnership went and are left guessing along with the town’s people. This review wouldn’t be complete without talking about actual residents of Carthage. They provide commentary and insight to the life of Bernie and Mrs. Nugent by answering the obvious questions we are asking. These moments while humorous also provide us a rather insightful take on who Bernie really is. At times the film seems to take a turn into outlandishness, but the talking head segments provide an anchor to reality. Right when you think it’s gone off the rails they are there to validate the story. It’s obvious that all of the talking heads aren’t genuine town’s people, but you don’t mind as the actors feel just as authentic. One performance that fell more on the surreal side was Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck the town District Attorney. I enjoyed what McConaughey was doing he just came off as a bigger character then the film needed him to be. His character comes into play when the relationship between Bernie and Mrs. Nugent takes a sharp turn for the worse. Part of what makes this film great is watching the wild reaction to this court case. It’s a perfect example of how people are sluggish to reassess their viewpoints even with a mountain of reasons why.
Though Bernie is supremely well crafted it does overreach at times. When the residents of Carthage are used in actual scripted scenes it felt like a very misaligned juxtaposition of stories. Combining both worlds gave it a forced cohesion that was ultimately unnecessary. Plus the acting of the residents was subpar at best. That is a rather small setback for an otherwise fantastic film. I went into this with lukewarm expectations and immediately became engrossed. The combination of superb performances, a tight script, and quality story telling made me an immediate fan. Interesting enough a great story can often do more harm than good. People can get lazy and rely too heavily on the gift they were given. Luckily Linklater didn’t take the easy way out and added some style and grace. The direction fit the material perfectly as it enhanced the absurdity of this story. When the saying, “Based on a true story” comes across a screen it’s usually meant with more groans to cheers. Usually the ‘true story’ moniker is reserved for films looking for justification for their melodrama. Bernie is completely absent of melodrama and maintains a moderately light tone. Even when the material gets dark the overall mood remains bright. For a story that could have been full of cynical wit it remains reasonably sincere. It’s not often you stumble upon a movie that pleasantly surprises you as much as Bernie did for me. When these moments happen I tend to relish them. Simply put Bernie is a great movie about a great story.