movies: Jack Black’s at his best in Bernie .....................
Shows fact is stranger than fiction, writes of
BERNIE is a one-of-a-kind movie that establishes its own tone, walking a thin line between seriousness and absurdity. Set in eastern Texas, it allows director Richard Linklater to explore his own roots while telling a remarkable real-life story, something too crazy for anyone to make up.
The film is based on the story of Bernie Tiede, who made headlines about 15 years ago.
And let’s say no more than that. Read nothing else about this movie. Every description out there, it seems, gives away the first half of the story.
There’s no better way to experience the movie than in complete ignorance, enjoying its every weird turn.
As played by Jack Black – this is the most penetrating and detailed work he has ever done – Bernie is a fascinating character, an assistant funeral director with a way of making everybody feel special. He sings at services, comforts widows, visits the lonely, buys people flowers and chocolate.
He is about the nicest guy on Earth, certainly the nicest and most popular guy in Carthage, Texas.
But he also has a quality, just a hint, of something else. This is where Black’s performance goes to the next level. There’s a suggestion of a darkness, or an unhappiness, a slightly covered quality.
This is not to say he’s a phony – that would be too easy. He’s not a phony at all. He really is a lovely guy, but he’s not showing you everything.
Certainly, one thing he is not showing you, and yet you can guess, is that he is gay. He’s closeted and not sexually active, but he has a gay essence about him, which Black conveys, but gently. Perhaps his homosexuality is a source of pain, with his evangelical background, or perhaps it’s something else.
In any case, there seems to be a wound in this guy. Again, Black doesn’t show it, but he lets you see it. This is a very rich character. You can see this movie, then talk about Black’s performance for the next hour.
Shirley MacLaine plays the richest, meanest woman in town, a lonely widow who takes a liking to Bernie and starts taking him on holidays.
MacLaine doesn’t do the things you might expect with the role. Her way of playing mean here is lowkey, inward, disgusted and impatient. MacLaine knows there’s a human being in there, too, underneath it all – but maybe too far underneath.
The third strong performance is that of Matthew McConaughey as the town prosecutor.
It’s a nice character turn for McConaughey, who plays the prosecutor as the smartest fish in a small pond, who thinks he’d be just as smart in a big pond, but we see otherwise.
Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Skip Hollandsworth, tells the story by interspersing straight scenes with interview scenes, set in the present, in which townsfolk look back on events.
These interviews, which are lively, feel off the cuff, but they were scripted. They allow Linklater to give the flavour of the local humour.
That humour is distinctly southwestern. As one of the locals, Kay McCabe – who is Matthew McConaughey’s mother (and you can see where his looks came from) – gets one of the movie’s better lines: ‘‘Honey, there were people in this town who’d have shot her for $5!’’ And then, of course, there’s this minor classic: ‘‘Her nose was so high up she would drown in a rainstorm.’’
Taking into account the rich performances, Bernie is one of the best films so far this year.
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black star in original and intriguing true-crime drama