Director : Richard Linklater
Screenplay : Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth (based on the Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Jack Black (Bernie Tiede), Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie Nugent), Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck), Brady Coleman (Scrappy Holmes), Richard Robichaux (Lloyd Hornbuckle), Rick Dial (Don Leggett)
Since he first read Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” about a stranger-than-fiction murder case involving a much beloved assistant funeral home director and a much detested wealthy widow in the tiny town of Carthage (population: 6,500), Richard Linklater has wanted to turn it into a film. After more than a decade of delays and shelf-sitting, he has finally come through with Bernie, an offbeat black comedy that stays true to the story’s bizarre tendency to make you both smile and grimace. As Linklater, who grew up in East Texas and knows the terrain well, said when he attended the murder trial back in 1998, “It’s comedy and tragedy, all intertwined.”
The Bernie of the title is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a portly, effeminate assistant funeral director who ingratiated himself so thoroughly into the Carthage community that when he was arrested for murder and confessed to the police, numerous locals declared they would acquit him if they were selected for the jury and the town’s widows brought him baked goods while he sat in prison awaiting trial. With a soft-vowel lisp, manners as immaculate as his always pressed clothes, and a gentle, mincing demeanor that never quite turns into a swishy gay caricature, Black gives one of the best performances of his career, deftly capturing Bernie’s endearing desire to be loved and appreciated through a life of incessantly helping others. A paragon of Christian piety and goodwill, Bernie is neither a kook nor a fraud, and Black rightly makes the character’s genuineness the core of his performance. We sense his sincere affection for other people, even if it sometimes manifests in ways that feel slightly offbeat, which keeps him fascinatingly mysterious even as we feel like we know him.
A fixture around town, Bernie had a special gift for consoling elderly widows, which is what led him into a lengthy relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine at her most dour), the Scrooge-like widow of an oil tycoon who was as much of a fixture in Carthage as Bernie, although she was despised in equal measure to how much he was adored. Perhaps it is because she was so widely hated that Bernie gave her such special attention, to the point that he eventually became her business manager and constant companion, traveling around the world with her and attending to her every need, even as her hold on him was laced with suffocating jealousy and possessiveness. It’s no wonder, then, that gentle Bernie finally snapped one day, shooting Mrs. Nugent in the back four times with a .22 rifle (that, ironically, she forced him to use to kill armadillos that were digging in her yard) and putting her body in a freezer, where it remained for nine months before her absence was finally notable enough to warrant some kind of investigation. When it comes time for the local prosecutor, a no-nonsense litigator named Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, sporting square glasses and graying hair) to prosecute, it’s hard to tell who is the true victim: much put-upon Bernie or the elderly widow stuffed in the freezer.
The screenplay by Linklater and Hollandsworth sticks close to the general facts of the case, largely because there is little need to embellish—as they say, you can’t make this stuff up. They gamble significantly with the film’s one major narrative conceit, which is the inclusion of talking-head-style interviews with actors playing various Carthage locals (the fact that Linklater cast these “gossips” entirely from East Texas, including Carthage, makes them feel so authentic that you can’t be faulted for mistaking them for documentary interviews, rather than scripted scenes). These interviews certainly bring the film an additional layer of color and humor, particularly in the way they lay out in no uncertain terms what life in East Texas is like (one man in a diner humorously dissects Texas into five separate regions, including the snobs in Dallas—which got a big laugh from the Dallas arthouse theater crowd with whom I saw the film—and the “carcinogenic coast” of Houston, with East Texas being the start of the true “South” behind the “Pine Curtain”). It also allows for plenty of hearsay commentary on Bernie and Mrs. Nugent (about whether he was a homosexual, about the true nature of their relationship, about how hated she was around town), which lends the film the flavor of small-town gossip and allows us to understand what happened from the perspective of the town itself. The only problem is that this narrative conceit feels interruptive at times, slowing the film’s momentum even as it enriches the texture of the strange case and the folksy culture in which it transpired.
Still, the film as a whole works quite marvelously, with Linklater, who has casually vacillated for several decades between experimental independent efforts like Waking Life (2001) and mainstream Hollywood productions like School of Rock (2003), giving it a sense of effortless quirkiness that feels comfortable and lived-in. It might be easy to mistake some of the film’s depictions of small-town East Texas life as a broadside against backwoods rubes, but Linklater invests us too much in the world of Cartharge to write the film off as a gag at their expense. He clearly relishes the unique idiosyncrasy of the area and the humor inherent to its depiction on screen, which keeps the film from slipping into condescension even as it draws some of its biggest laughs from the discrepancy between the frank responses of the locals and the intractable weirdness of the case.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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