Friday, November 30, 2012

Bernie Is A Good Almost-Documentary That Prioritizes Substance Over Sparkle.

The Good: Interesting story, Good characters, Jack Black’s performance
The Bad: Tone/pacing
The Basics: Bernie is, ultimately, a glorified newsmagazine special of a murder case that takes far, far, too long to become anything.

Lately, when my wife and I finish watching a film, she turns to me and asks, “What are you going to give it?” because she knows I will review anything and everything that comes before me. When Bernie was done, we had a rare discussion about the film. Her family had left a copy for us to watch on their last visit and we finally watched it, pretty late at night. Bernie was engaging enough that I stayed awake an hour and a half after my usual bedtime to watch it and it was presented in a way that continued to develop such that I could not fall asleep during it (not that that was my first instinct).

But the more and more my wife and I talked about Bernie - and I did like it – the more I was forced to admit that, more than anything, I simply did not care how the film turned out. My wife analogized Bernie to a 48 Hours television special, without the ominous tone (I used the phrase “sensationalism”) and she was right. Bernie is very much like a profile on a television newsmagazine, usually the type where the trajectory of a killer is traced with voiceovers that make the person seem terrible and their crimes almost inevitable (or, conversely, utterly shocking). Bernie is very much like that, but without the tone or sensationalism and, for a significant part of the movie, a crime. In fact, it is remarkably late in the movie that the film evolves from somewhat boring character profile to an abrupt murder, cover up and inevitable trial. The erratic nature of Bernie left me feeling the film was far more average than exceptional, though I did enjoy it.

Bernie Tiede is a Texan in his late thirties, who is a mortician’s assistant in Carthage, Texas. Beloved by all the locals for the way he has a kind word for everyone and goes out of his way for the bereaved, Bernie finds success and happiness in the small community. Marjorie Nugent, on the other hand, is reviled my most of the town for the way she is mean to everyone and delights in rejecting loans in her position at the local bank after her husband dies. But, when her husband dies, she and Bernie strike up an unlikely friendship. Against all odds, Marjorie allows Bernie to console her and soon they are seen everywhere traveling together and spending time in one another’s company.

That relationship, however, takes a turn for the unhealthy when Marjorie starts controlling Bernie’s time and keeps him under the thumb. Frustrated one day at her berating him, Bernie picks up the armadillo shooting rifle and shoots her in the back four times. After that, Bernie continually comes up with excuses for why people cannot visit Marjorie, while at the same time using her considerable assets to benefit everyone in the community. But Marjorie’s stockbroker and the local district attorney slowly come to believe something is amiss and when they find her body, Bernie is taken into custody.

Bernie is based upon a true story, so all my comments – it should be noted – pertain only to the film Bernie. Bernie takes its time to adequately illustrate just what a nice guy Bernie Tiede is, and it does that exceptionally effectively. But the film plods along without any purpose for quite some time as Bernie just keeps doing nice things in Texas and by the time something actually happens (i.e. he shoots Marjorie), I had almost completely lost interest. In fact, it almost seems like writer and director Richard Linklater got bored as well because he forgot almost all of the rising action leading up to the murder. Bernie’s defense at his trial has to do with how controlling Marjorie was, but that is not exceptionally well-illustrated in Bernie; the scene before, Bernie is off flying the plane Marjorie seems to have bought for him. In other words, Bernie fails to show the man oppressed in a serious or crippling way.

This is to the detriment of the film because as soon as the accountant goes snooping and Marjorie’s body is found, Bernie focuses quite a bit on D.A. Danny Buck, a thoroughly unlikable character. So, despite loathing Buck and his methods, Linklater’s Bernie is only so persuasive because the first half of the film convinces the viewer that Bernie and his perspective can be trusted.

Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie and she has vastly fewer lines than most of the townspeople (who are played by themselves, actual peers of the real Bernie Tiede) and her role is basically a supporting one that is comparatively minor. Similarly, Matthew McConaughey’s Daniel Buck only comes into his own in the last third of the film and he quietly develops the character in reaction shots more than he defines him through anger or bluster. Buck’s fate is not mentioned in the closing credits and that is unfortunate, so McConaughey effectively generated enough interest to make the viewer care whether the D.A. got re-elected or not.

Most of the movie rests on the performance of Jack Black, as Bernie Tiede. Black gives a performance that instantly reminded me of Zach Galifianakis in The Campaign (reviewed here!), but to be fair, Black beat him to the mannerisms. Regardless, this is a role unlike any I’ve seen Jack Black in and he carries it effectively, showcasing his musical range along the way.

Ultimately, Bernie is a simple movie, well worth watching once, but unless it is leading up to a retrial or pardon (one supposes the Governor of Texas could watch Bernie and be moved or Obama could use a Presidential pardon on the guy) it is hard to muster up the enthusiasm to rewatch the film.

For other works with Shirley MacLaine, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Around The World In 80 Days
The Apartment
Terms Of Endearment
In Her Shoes
Rumor Has It . . .
Valentine’s Day


Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where the film reviews are organized from best film to worst!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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