Friday, May 17, 2013


Directed by Richard Linklater.
2011. Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Shirley MacLaine
Brady Coleman
Richard Robichaux
Rick Dial
Brandon Smith
Larry Jack Dotson
Merrilee McCommas
Mathew Greer

Locals say assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was the most popular man in Carthage, Texas. This was at least in part due to how great a mortician he was. They say he made the remains of their loved ones look wonderful. Another reason was that he was the most genuinely nice person in town. He was so beloved that no one in town blamed him or wanted to convict him even after he confessed to a murder. This is a retelling of just how this came to be. Amazingly, this is based on a true story.

The movie mixes and matches genres in a way that could be confusing, at first. It’s part documentary as some of the people who knew the real Bernie play themselves and speak candidly about what occurred. This is interspersed with scenes using actors. Aside from Jack Black in the lead, there’s Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie, one of the many widows Bernie befriends, and Matthew McConaughey as Danny “Bucks”, the District Attorney trying to make sure Bernie does the time for his crime. Eventually, it turns into courtroom drama. Through it all runs a current of dark comedy making it even more unbelievable that this really happened. Stylistically, it’s very reminiscent of Waiting for Guffman. Thankfully, all the different strands mesh easily, helping us settle into a groove and roll with the punches.

For a film such as Bernie success hinges on the believability of its cast. Not surprisingly, MacLaine and McConaughey nail their roles. McConaughey in particular feels completely natural as the normally self-serving DA who is not given enough credit for wanting to do the right thing even though the people with power to re-elect him appear to be completely against him. They tell him so every chance they get. Thankfully Jack Black reels himself in enough to keep Bernie from becoming a complete joke of a person. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do considering Bernie is quirky and effeminate, two qualities that could easily be overblown along the lines of Robin Williams in The Birdcage. Black plays him as an odd bird, to be sure, but one we can still identify with and even understand why people like him.

Once our main characters are established as real people, the movie has one more task. It has to make us in the audience like Bernie at least half as much as the people of Carthage. Granted, we don’t get all smitten with him like they do, but it succeeds. Actually, showing the killing goes a long way in this. It’s filmed in a way that we don’t see him as some heartless monster, at least up to that point. Combined with the generally ill disposition of his victim and the situation he’s found himself in, it plants the idea in our heads that we might have done the same thing. It also makes us skeptical of what the actual charges are against him. We’re sympathetic toward him, at first, but as time moves on and his actions become more and more egregious we’re not so sure about things. And that’s precisely where the movie wants you to be.

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