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Bernie (2012)

June 7, 2012

8/10 Local Heroes

Only in the South…

Bernie is the true story of one Bernie Tiede: a funeral director from the great city of Carthage, TX. Ask anyone who knew him and they’ll tell you about one hell of a guy. Doesn’t matter how you kicked the bucket, he made you look good, and long before your time was up, he just made you feel good, like you were the most important person in all of Texas. It was the ’90s, everyone liked Bernie, and Bernie liked everyone. Eventually, Bernie took a liking to a little old widow named Marjorie Nugent, and Marjorie Nugent took a liking to him. It was the ’90s, everyone hated Marjorie Nugent, and Marjorie Nugent hated everyone…except for Bernie. They traveled the world together, they tore through her bank account together, and some may say that they even got “friendly” together (jury’s still out on that one). But somewhere down the line, things went sour. Their love turned ugly, Bernie went from a companion to a prisoner, and then, one day, Bernie just snapped.

Don’t you just love these kinds of stories? The ones that happen right in our backyards, that come and go from the public eye like a fart in the wind, only to be completely reborn years later in a movie or a book? It’s the kind of story that makes you wonder why you’ve never heard of it before, and why it wasn’t a bigger deal at the time when it was actually playing out. They’re the kind of stories that usually get reserved for documentaries, and in a lot of ways, that’s actually what Bernie‘s going for.

See, half of the story is told through testimonials from the citizens of Carthage, people vouching for how swell Bernie was and how awful Marjorie was, going of their interactions with them around town. This is the half that makes it a dark comedy instead of just a dark, depressing, “Why did I pay to see this?” kinda movie. And let me tell ya’, these folks are characters, man, characters with some colloquialisms. How about, “That woman walked around with her nose so high, she could have drowned in a rainstorm.” Or better yet, “That woman would tear you a new three-bedroom, two-bath, double-wide asshole just for nothin’.” They sure don’t talk like that in New England, and boy how I wish they did. But aside from being the comedic relief, they’re the reason this movie feels real, like a documented community bombshell rather than an isolated incident starring some mustachioed fella down the street.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until later that I realized the interviewees were all in fact professional actors, which definitely took away from the authenticity of it all, but still, quite an inspired approach on writer/director Richard Linklater’s part, one that adds a great deal of humanity and humor to the mix.

The other half of the story is told in your everyday, straightforward narrative. Meet Bernie Tiede, watch him schmooze over the grieving D.L.O.L.’s (Dear Little Old Ladies) of Carthage, watch him “court” Marjorie, watch things go downhill. Might not sound all that special from the outset, but that’s where Jack Black comes in.

Now, when some folks hear that Jack Black’s in a new movie, they drop what they’re doing and skip on over to the local monsterplex. When other folks hear that Jack Black’s in a new movie, they break out the pitchforks and march through town screaming “BURN THE WITCH!” He’s a very divisive fellow that Jack Black, and what’s hilarious is that he’s loved and hated for all the same reasons: he’s always on, he’s always at 11, and he’s always, always channeling the D. And while I tend to be the skipping type in these matters – mainly ’cause no one does “Let’s Get It On” like he does – I can understand the mob mentality.

So the double-edged sword of Black’s performance as Bernie is that he’s really just doing the same stuff he always does. Singing, dancing, walking like a penguin for two hours – the works. But for everyone who just read that and wrote this movie off entirely, you gotta trust me on this one, because this time it’s different. This time he’s calmer, more toned-down, more “light in the loafers” than we’re used to, and it goes a long way. He really does become Bernie, someone noticeably different than the J.B. we’re used to, and when you hear the Carthage townfolk talking about him, you see their observations reflected in the performance. Bernie Tiede comes across as such a fantastic, eccentric individual to begin with, and it’s because of Black that he’s that much easier to watch and sympathize with. Not counting High Fidelity, this may very well be the best role of his career. Easily the best thing he’s done in years. Even better than The Cable Guy.

Matthew McConaughey is also fantastic as District Attorney Danny Buck, and Shirley McLaine is fine, if not forgettable, as Miss Nugent. I’m telling you, Matthew McConaughey could be so damn good if he could just stop taking all these pretty boy roles that keep coming his way. Maybe someday…

But the most interesting thing about Bernie – the real reason it got an 8 – is the way it keeps getting better as the plot progresses. The First Act is enjoyable, the Second Act is when things start coming together, and the Final Act is what drives it all home. The Final Act is why Bernie Tiede got a movie. Was hoping I could avoid having to mention this, but (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE TRAILER) Bernie Tiede, in a rare moment of weakness, goes and kills Miss Nugent with four slugs to the back one fine morning. So when the town finds out about it, not only can no one believe that Bernie of all people was the one who iced her, but since Bernie’s so loved and Miss Nugent’s so hated, they all take the murderer’s side.

Even more interesting is the way it works on the audience. Just like the townies, you get to love Bernie, you get to loathe Marjorie, and even though he shot an old lady in the back and all, you totally want him to get away with it. I mean, what’s the big deal? After all, it’s not like he’s some sort of deviant, you can hardly blame the guy for losing it, and it’s not like the world couldn’t use less Marjories, am I right? The man’s doing us a favor, dammit! Trial dismissed.

I know, sounds cold, but that’s what’s so great about the Final Act. Although as effective as it is, it’s only effective because it tells one side of the story. You go along with it because it happens to be a good one-sided story, but alas, testimonies from fake townies aren’t enough to justify what an evil crone Miss Nugent’s made out to be.

All the same, one-sided or not, Bernie‘s a total trip. The more I keep thinking about it, the more I seem to like. Aside from Black’s performance and all the Southern-fried insults to boot, it’s just a great, bizarre, American story about the fickle line between right and wrong. Can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that was structured like this either. Fun stuff all around, really.

God, that sounds weird.

P.S.: That must be one of the worst Photoshop jobs I’ve ever seen on a poster. Seriously, zoom in on that shit. Yikes.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. HermioneO permalink
    June 7, 2012 6:13 am

    1. I didn’t know Jack Black could sing – I mean really sing.
    2. Jack has had at least one other role which was not over the top – The Holiday – though it was a supporting role.
    3. I thought I heard just the opposite – that some of those interviews were with actual townsfolk.

    The whole film was just a hoot.

    • June 7, 2012 9:44 am

      Never saw The Holiday, and unless my wife forces me to, I don’t think I’ll ever see it. Alas, just doesn’t seem like my kinda thing.

      And you might be right about some of the townsfolk being actual townsfolk, but the actors listed on the IMDB page lead me to believe otherwise. Should look into that more though.

      But I’m right there with ya’. Total hoot.

  2. June 7, 2012 5:59 pm

    No, not all the townspeople are actors.I am a local guy in the movie who talks about how Bernie liked to spend money,the things Danny Buck would do to get re-elected and what happened in court and a few other things….however,I will gladly take it as a compliment that you thought I was a real,trained actor..I am Ira Bounds and thanks.

    • June 7, 2012 7:26 pm

      Holy crap! Ira Bounds! You were great, man! You had some of the best lines of the whole movie!

      Sorry for the blanket statement about the “fake” citizens of Carthage. I briefly looked into the guy who played Lonnie – the guy who they kept interviewing at the diner, talked about how the jurors had more tattoos than teeth – and he’s got a lengthy acting history on IMDB. Assumed it was the same for everyone, but hey, take it as a compliment!

      So I gotta know: was Marjorie Nugent really that bad?

  3. Becky permalink
    June 7, 2012 7:03 pm

    The townsfolk WERE townsfolk… that auditioned and got parts in the movie.

    • June 7, 2012 7:27 pm

      That is so awesome. Apologies for jumping to conclusions, will edit this sucker accordingly.

  4. June 8, 2012 6:10 am

    Other than that,I found your review to be spot on.One of the best I have seen….I went to several funerals that Bernie sang hymns..My brother in law had a run in with her…at a Q & A after one of the early premiers,the “real” Lloyd the stockbroker was there and he said that in bizness Mrs. Nugent was as Shirley portrayed her…but that she did have a good side…but there are scores of people in town that had stories about her

    • June 8, 2012 10:32 am

      Thanks! That means a lot. Count this as the first time an actor in a movie has actually commented (positively, for that matter) on my review of the movie they were in. Big day!

      And that is a riot about Mrs. Nugent. Hard to believe it’s a true story, huh?


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