As a Texan expatriate, Richard Linklater’s Bernie found a special place in my heart. Filled with comments on Texas and the people who live there, I found the film hilarious, although my bias withstanding, it’s still an excellent movie. While it’s a little different than Slacker, Waking Life, or Dazed and Confused, it still is a solid, enjoyable, and thought-provoking film, though it doesn’t necessarily toe the line between comedy and drama successfully.
Based on an article in Texas Monthly, Bernie tells the story of a funeral director dearly beloved by his small East Texas town. Bernie, a hefty and effeminate man played by Jack Black, gives generously to those around him, directs town musicals, heads the local Christmas decorating committee, accompanies widows, leads the church choir, and brings a warmth and kindness to all of those he meets. He soon becomes dear friends with a woman hated by most of the town’s residents, a widow played by Shirley MacLaine, and attempts to bring her back into favor. However, as their friendship grows, she soon begins to treat him as more of a footstool than a friend, causing him to feel smothered and cut off. Despite his loving nature, he is soon driven to murder and the town is thrown into chaos.
Two elements of the film hold it together, the first being the film’s style. Instead of a traditional narrative structure, Linklater chooses instead to build his film around interviews with the town’s residents, some of them actors, some of them real individuals, giving the film a quality which resembles Gates of Heaven or The Thin Blue Line mixed with Get Low. In fact, this film’s subject would be perfect material for Errol Morris. The interviews are then interspersed with the film’s narrative. This is important because it shows us the integral role a community like this plays not only in the life of Bernie but in the lives of all residents of small towns. These individuals all have opinions on the events unfolding and it allows us to see how the judgment cast by one person in a pint-sized community can deeply affect another. It also allows for Linklater to express his obsession with conversation and how people talk.
Bernie is also helped by the performance of Jack Black. While I’m normally not a fan of Jack Black, he steps away from playing the obnoxious role he normally inhabits and instead takes on the mantle of a man who seems somewhat real, a man filled with fear and faith and humor. Richard Linklater also directed him as a character in a film totally different than this one, School of Rock, and the contrast between these two films allows us to see the development of Mr. Black’s acting ability. Similarly, Matthew McConaughey plays an arrogant district attorney, a role he was brought into this world for.
What is so great about Bernie is that it does what few comedies are capable of: it sticks in your mind. Like the town’s residents, it is impossible to not have an opinion on Bernie after seeing the film and it is difficult to not cast judgment on him, whether that judgment is negative or positive. While I may love it to some degree because of the Texas inside jokes and such, I enjoyed it even more because it is a solid dark comedy: it cleverly exposes its strange subject matter and brings great laughs, but also raises serious and puzzling questions. It may not be Slacker, but it sure is good.
Bernie is directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine. 104 minutes long. Rated PG-13.