Richard Linklater’s new film Bernie tells the true story of the rise and fall of Jack Black’s small-town Texas mortician Bernie Tiede. Bernie is an immensely popular member of the community in the town of Carthage who is as big a hit with the LOLs (little old ladies) as he is with the drama society. He befriends a wealthy widow by the name of Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine, and eventually becomes her aide and travel companion. However the unconventional relationship quickly turns sour and when she disappears the whole town starts to ask questions. If you need the real-world scoop on what happened, then you can check out the NYTimes, or the Daily Mail if you’re that way inclined.
Alongside an impressive top-line cast of Black and MacLaine, Linklater has enlisted his fellow Texas-native Matthew McConaughey to play a lawyer by the name of Danny Buck who leads the prosecution’s case against Bernie after it transpires he is to blame for Marjorie’s death. McConaughey got his big break in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused way back in 1993, so it’s nice to see them working together again.
It’s been three years since we saw a Richard Linklater film on screen (2009′s under-rated Spooool favourite Me and Orson Welles), and he really has been missed. His lack of interest in the Hollywood system, instead choosing to produce his films in Europe or small towns in America (or in the case of Orson Welles, The Isle of Man), may well mean he gets passed over for a lot of directing jobs and it really is a shame. When you don’t play the Hollywood game, your marketing budget is practically nil, meaning Bernie hits screens with minimal hype.
Jack Black seems to be synonymous with larger-than-life performances where he shouts his way into every frame of movies, but here his performance is wonderfully restrained and nuanced. It’s probably his most likable character since 2008′s Be Kind Rewind or maybe even his last collaboration with Linklater, the wonderful School of Rock (I still do kicks every time I play keyboard in tribute to them). It’s to Black’s credit that against the odds, the viewer holds a wealth of sympathy for a man who has just killed an old widow.
Part of this “balance of sympathy” also has to come down to Shirley MacLaine’s wonderful performance as Marjorie. The 78-year-old seems to relish playing the town battleaxe, with her eyes lighting up to the point where one stare from her is enough to make any resident of Carthage feel three feet tall.
Bernie’s downfall is told through a series of interviews with residents, with everyone but Bernie and Marjorie contributing. These are a wonderful way of introducing us to the gossip and hearsay that fuels a small town. The fact that all these characters have thick Texas drawls using hilarious euphemisms to talk about homosexuality and murder makes them a real delight. This narrative technique might not click with some people, but it was something fresh and different and without it, the film could have been left quite flat. Ultimately we’re dealing with the murder of a pensioner here, but because the story is so farcical and weird, Linklater decides to play it all for laughs maintaining an absurd tone through-out.
It may seem strange to see a Jack Black movie languishing without a release date for the best part of a year. The film played at a few festivals last year without much buzz before stumbling into a limited US release earlier this month, with no Irish or UK release dates currently scheduled. Hopefully that will be remedied soon and the rest of the world gets the change to spend some time in Linklater’s wonderful tale of small-town America.
USA / Directed By: Richard Linklater / Written By: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworthe / Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey / 104min / Comedy, Drama / Release: 4 May 2012 (US), 18 May 2012 (Canada)