Bernie (2011)

Director:  Richard Linklater
Cast:  Jack BlackShirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Plot:  In small-town Texas, the local mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she's alive.

Genre:  Comedy / Crime / Drama

Awards:  Nom. for 1 Golden Globe - Best Leading Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Runtime:  104min
Rating:  PG13 for some violent images and brief strong language.


Independent American director Richard Linklater collaborates with actor Jack Black again in this low-key drama-comedy about a character named Bernie.  Black, who last worked with Linklater in the hit The School of Rock (2003), plays the title character Bernie, a charming guy who walks with an effeminate style, and who above all else, has an incredible desire to help everyone in his community, be it a family in need, or a snobbish old lady.

Speaking of which, Marjorie Nugent is probably the most snobbish of old ladies that you will see on the screen this year.  Played by the legendary Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment, 1960; Terms of Endearment, 1983), Marjorie drives Bernie to madness when she takes advantage of his kindness one mile too far.

Set in Texas in the town of Carthage, Linklater embraces the socio-cultural climate of the locale not by capturing beautiful imagery, but through the numerous interactions with its colourful people.  In an unorthodox way of presenting his film, Linklater intercuts documentary interviews of real Carthage folks as they recall how they were touched by Bernie’s grace, with a reel take on Bernie the person as played by Black.

The end result is simply a film that is impossible to define.  The unconventional narrative style and structure give Bernie a pacing that is more meandering than focused, but Linklater manages to keep things in check with Black’s stunning performance acting as the anchor for the entire film.

Black, who mostly flatters to deceive, will convince his critics of his acting ability in Bernie.  Such is his charm and persuasiveness that it would take a person with a wooden heart to not like him.  The problem comes when his character kills Marjorie (this is not a spoiler!) midway into the film.  Is he guilty or not?  Can such an angel commit a devilish crime?

Bernie is not so much a character or psychological study on morality, but a tribute to a person who (unfortunately) has to face the law, his fate under the scrutiny of another town’s jury, despite being an affectionately nice guy for his entire life.  Can one seemingly justified moment of madness define a person?

Bernie will resonate more with the artsy-fartsy crowd, though it must be said that Black will pull a number of mainstream viewers into the theatres to catch this.  Linklater’s film is out of the ordinary, but it is never extraordinary.  It is well-directed in an understated manner, and while not always consistently engaging, it feels like something that might be important to watch.  After all it is based on a true story.

Verdict:  Impossible to define, Linklater does something out of the ordinary, though never extraordinary, in this low-key drama-comedy.


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