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Bernie




Richard Linklater's most impressive accomplishment with Bernie, his 14th (or so) full-length feature, might well be wrangling the outsized persona of Jack Black into a distinct, watchable character.  The success of this endeavor, beyond the considerable credit due to Mr. Black himself, may have something to do with the responsibility of portraying a living person.  That living person, Bernie Tiede, happens to be serving a life sentence in Texas.  In 1996, Tiede murdered his 81-year-old employer and companion, Marjorie Nugent.  Among images of the real-life principals of the case we see during the closing credits is a photo of Black meeting Tiede.  


At the outset of Bernie, there is the faux folksiness of a title card which reads, "What you're fixin' to see is a true story."  Given Mr. Linklater's typically impressive handling of actors, professional and amateur alike, as well as the gentle comedy which ensues, it's hard to say whether one should take that down home admonition seriously.  But based on a true story Bernie is, adapted from Skip Hollandsworth's 1998 story in Texas Monthly magazine,  entitled, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas."  Hollandsworth collaborated with Richard Linklater on the script for the film.  


Mr. Linklater is steadfast resident of Texas, eschewing Hollywood settlement .  His breakthrough feature, Slacker, meandered its way around the state capital of Austin.  Since then, the director has returned to his home state for several subsequent films.  While his status in the film world and home state residency no doubt buys him some credibility with the locals, Bernie in some ways feels like a film made by an outsider.  Of course, as one of the residents of Carthage might tell him, Mr. Linklater is not from the THE Texas.  He's from that region hippie weirdness  - the same so celebrated in Slacker - dubbed by the colorful gentleman as "The People's Republic of Austin."       


The colorful gentleman is but one of a group of  residents of Carthage, Texas who comment on the action in Bernie.  As Linklater said in an interview to publicize the film, "I've never seen a movie really pull through the viewpoint of a town."  True enough perhaps, but this pulls the film on a somewhat crooked course.  There is apparently a faction of Carthage less sympathetic to Bernie Tiede than most of those we see in Mr. Linklater's film.  And even among those given speaking roles in Bernie, one gets the feeling that personality was given precedence over an ability to shed light on the case, the accused, or the spirit of the place.  Of course, no director, Linklater  included, is going to go out of his way to find uncompelling people with which to populate his film.  But the genial, generally older folks who contribute their two cents seem mainly there for their entertainment value.  Whatever insights about Carthage or small town life that emerge, would seem arise inadvertently.  Perhaps this is the subtle hand of the writers and director at work.  More likely it indicates the drift in Bernie between sympathetic portrait of a person and place and a darker comedy than it's willing to be.   






Sonny Carl Davis plays one of the town gossips, Lonny.  He's arguably the most entertaining of the lot, the man who provides that interesting demographic breakdown of Texas.   Beyond the "People's Republic of Austin," there is "The Carcinogenic Coast (the Houston area)," the "Dallas snobs," etc.  Linklater accompanies these pronouncements with a mapping of the Lone Star State according to Lonny, most humorously placing a question mark in the Panhandle, an area of the state for which our amateur anthropologist has no comment.  This is the one real moment of cartoonishness in Bernie and certainly one of its funniest.  While a Texan, Mr. Davis is not one of the actual residents of Carthage utilized in the film.  His presence and prominence would seem to reveal Linklater stacking the deck ever so slightly in favor of laughs, running contrary to the admonition that Bernie offers in the film's first scene, as he lectures on preparing a corpse (he's a mortician), "You cannot have grief tragically become comedy."    


Even if he does use the residents of Carthage for laughs as much (or more) than insight, Mr. Linklater seems to regard these small town Texans with more affection than has often been the case with the Cohen Brothers as they have traipsed through Americana in various of their films.  Ironically, Linklater has said that he considers Bernie "my Fargo."  That might well be, in that both films involve their writers/directors returning to a home region to make a film based on a real crime.  However, the resemblance ends there.  Bernie is generally more compassionate with its characters but it also lacks the weight and consistent tone of Fargo.  The Cohens managed to inject some trademark black humor and misanthropy without comprising the dark, inexorable tide of their film. 
  



As Linklater presents Bernie - going expertly about his funerary responsibilities, providing tax advice to locals, directing and starring in community theater, leading hymns in church - he seems almost a Wes Anderson character in his general mastery of a peculiar, circumscribed world.  Of course, the appropriately jumbled mise en scene and pedestrian wardrobe (which in both cases, is to say, of this earth) would give Wes Anderson a stroke.  Given his fondness for what one of our commentators called the "DOLs  (dear little old ladies)," his lack of any normal heterosexual love life and penchant for musical theater after all, the question of sexual orientation does arise, particularly given the small town setting.  It's addressed fairly early with another one of those folksy intertitles, "Was Bernie Gay?"  The locals weigh in, commenting that he might be "a little light in the loafers."  But the film versions of Bernie and the town operate in kind of mutually satisfactory Carthage version of "don't ask, don't tell."  "That dog don't hunt," as it is more quaintly put by another local.   

Bernie might not be Linklater's Fargo, but it is in some ways his Lost in Translation.  The director's School of Rock was a veritable fantasy camp for Jack Black in which every childish whim could be played out:  the rock star make believe, the flouting of authority, exaggerated gestures of both limbs and face, not to mention the expounding of a philosophy about as deep as your average Tenacious D song.  Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation managed to reclaim every aspect of Bill Murray's persona - the golf schtick from Caddyshack, the lounge lizard from Saturday Night Live and even a general lack of sincerity in some of his previous film work - that had run to caricature.  Similarly, Linklater has reigned in every tendency for overstatement in Black and given him a role in which he can remind us what a talented performer he can be.  In Bernie, it's actually entertaining to hear him hymn-singing or marching across the stage in the local theater production of The Music Man.  And that rubbery visage, so challenged by facial muscles prone to run off in several directions at once, rarely seems to lose its sense of character.  The same can be said for Mr. Black's eyebrows, which at times are reminiscent of John Belushi, leading a tilting, pointing life of their own.  All of which is to say that with Bernie one is reminded that Jack Black can act, something easily enough forgotten for those who sat through the final third of Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding.   




As the other half of Bernie's rather odd couple, Shirley MacLaine has a face that doesn't run to extremes.  This would seem to be the case not as an instruction on the part of her director or a decision on the part of the actress, but as a fact of her 78-year-old life.  How much this might have to do with artificial measures is anyone's guess.  MacLaine acknowledged a face lift some three decades ago and said it was a measure against aging that she didn't plan to repeat.  But as Marjorie Nugent the face is preternaturally taut, the billboard of the emotions is a little too blank to lead us to the conclusion that she's as formidably cantankerous as our Carthage chorus would have us believe.  The characterizations Bernie and Marjorie are neither particularly deep ones, but Ms. MacLaine also has much less to work with than Mr. Black.   

It's credible enough that the cranky widow might be susceptible to the expert ministrations of Bernie, experienced as he is with the dear, and not quite so dear old ladies. But there is an unfortunate consistency with the offhand manner in which Marjorie is handled in the film that she transforms from contented companion of Bernie to crazed and possessive harridan so abruptly, as if afflicted not with early onset but instant onset alzheimer's. This ultimately drives Bernie to his crime, cover-up of the murder and months of free spending with Nugent's money. The film emphasizes the philanthropic direction of this spending - this only adding to his popularity in Carthage - over the more self-serving shopping sprees in which the real Bernie might have indulged.

Oh, this way lies madness.   Jack Black as the title character in Bernie

Aside from the almost arbitrary change in mood we see on the part of Marjorie Nugent, the major void in Bernie is the role of Danny Buck, played by Linklater veteran and old friend Matthew McConaughey.  McConaughey, of course, had his cinematic coming out party in Linklater's Dazed and Confused.  The handsome Texan was also part of the ensemble in the director's Newton Boys five years later.  The actor can play comedy; in fact, it's in dramatic roles that he often seems in danger of being found out.  McConaughey was a kind of uber smarmy perfection as agent Rick Peck in  Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.  But here he never quite finds his footing between District Attorney Danny Buck's earnestness and occasional grandstanding.  It's easy to imagines someone like the versatile Gary Cole (think Office Space, "Talladega Nights" and Dodgeball) faring rather better with the role.

The blame lies not all with McConaughey.  Linklater actually attended the trial of Bernie Tiede.  The proceedings marked the extremely rare instance of a prosecutor asking for a change of venue because he feared an accused getting too fair of a trial.  Such, apparently, was Mr. Tiede's popularity in Carthage.  There's an exchange Linklater has said that he took almost verbatim from the trial when prosecutor Buck mentions some of the high living Tiede was doing with Marjorie Nugent.  He notes the attendance of a performance of Les Miserables, intentionally (so the director would have us believe) mispronouncing the French title.  Bernie corrects him without derision.  The prosecutor makes much of this as a fine example of what an elitist is Tiede, what an outsider.  By implication, perhaps most frighteningly, some sort of intellectual.  Whatever the prosecutor did in the actual trial was obviously effective enough to bring back a conviction, but the sequence in Bernie is strangely stilted.  It's one of the more glaring examples in Bernie of the difficulty of adapting a true story into satisfying fiction, Mr. Linklater's major failing. 

An early contender for best supporting performance from a pair of eyeglasses - beneath them, Matthew McConaughey as Danny Burke in Bernie.
For most of the film, there's nothing sneering or lurid in the way Linklater handles the character of Bernie. This is where much of the success of the film lies: Black's restraint in performance and his director's respectful presentation. Given that, there is a curious shot to close the proceedings. After Bernie has been visited in prison by one of the DOL's, the camera watches him being led down a corridor, focusing on his slightly mincing walk from behind. It's another moment in which Mr. Linklater's lesser instincts seem to betray him.


Bernie is certainly no masterpiece, as one of Chicago's most respected film critics has hailed it (he's also rather too fond of The Newton Boys).  It's not even as good as the director's previous film, the sweet, glossy and underseen Me and Orson Welles.  But thanks largely to the focused performance of Jack Black, Bernie is worthwhile, as is the case with even minor Richard Linklater. 



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