I’m really excited for what the second half of the year promises movie wise, and lately I’ve been warming up for it with a series of movies that have been good, but ultimately flawed. My latest selection, the new Richard Linklater film Bernie, is a movie that will have you laughing out loud and then questioning whether you really should be laughing or not. Think Christopher Guest mockumentary crossed with Errol Morris documentary, but cast with Jack Black, a scenery chewing (in the best way possible) Matthew McConaughey, and a gamely along for the ride Shirley Maclaine, and you pretty much get the picture.
The movie is the true story of funeral home worker and title character Bernie, an all-around good guy that’s always there for the bereaved in the community, always doing little things for others and a guy that is just generally liked and loved in the town he works, small town Carthage, Texas. Bernie ends up taking up with town biddy, widow and tyrant Marjorie Nugent. Marjorie has money but no friends, and she doesn’t even seem to get along with her family. Bernie, though, sees the good in everybody and ends up working for the much older Marjorie as her personal assistant and companion. There are perks, such as trips and money, and Bernie seems made for the job, but Marjorie makes his life a demanding living hell, culminating in Bernie killing her, supposedly out of frustration. He confesses the crime, but the kicker is that everyone loves Bernie so much and hated Marjorie just as much, so the local DA legitimately wonders whether he can get a conviction on a guy who has admitted to a murder.
None of this plot giveaway, by the way, is a spoiler as to whether you’ll like the movie or not. Because the details of the actual story are few and far between. All the characters are little more than sketches and there is little to no depth or exploration as to any real reason why Bernie committed the murder. The story is played as a dark comedy, and the fun comes in the performances. Jack Black as Bernie is wonderfully droll as Bernie, his use of subtle physical comedy and mannerisms spot on in portraying Bernie’s ingratiating personality. But Bernie doesn’t seem ingratiating in an agenda driven way. This guy is simply disarmingly nice, completely sincere, but sort of in his own world. One of the major plot devices is to use local townspeople to tell the story, and they universally loved Bernie and hated Marjorie. Several of them go so far as to insinuate Marjorie probably deserved it. On the other hand, none of them really seemed to know Bernie on a very deep level.
The movie itself doesn’t work on a very deep level. The townspeople, with their East Texas stylings and sayings, get off some laugh out loud lines about the whole situation. And, again, Black plays Bernie with a subtle presence that gets across Bernie’s “I’m here to serve” personality. Matthew McConaughey as the DA out to overcome the town’s love for Bernie and put Bernie away as a murderer is a straight hoot. There’s really no other word for it. McConaughey plays the DA as an over the top, literal big stick carrying, big fish in a small pond. Even though the town wants the DA to “go easy” on poor Bernie, McConaughey treats it all like a cause celebre and preens and performs his way in an attempt to throw the book at Bernie.
Again, there are some truly laugh out loud moments in this film. Jack Black, with almost nothing to work with in terms of character depth, provides a bulk of the laughs with his earnest, sincere portrayal of the super eager to please Bernie. Even the way Black walks in this film is expressive. McConaughey chews scenery as fast as he can talk (a scene with a spinning “wheel of misfortune” is exhibit A of the fun McConaughey is having). And Shirley Maclaine, with the somewhat thankless role of establishing Marjorie as mean enough to feel like Bernie may have been justified in killing her, does her part.
In fact, here is where I start to get torn about this movie overall. In many ways, the less you know about this being a true story the more you’re going to like it. It really is very funny in many places. But this, in the end, is a true story. And you do have to ask yourself, I think, on some level if this is a responsible way to tell the story of a murdered woman. The story is based on a very surface-ly (if that is a word) reported story in Texas Monthly magazine. The movie follows the magazine story almost to a T, and adds almost nothing to it. It’s easy to see where the article could have inspired a movie, what with the saucy townspeople, the juxtaposition of the nice guy killing the mean old lady that everyone hated, and things being escalated so far that many of the town gossips almost seemed to say Marjorie deserved it. But, of course, no one deserves to be killed just because she’s abrasive.
And there had to be more to the story. Marjorie may have been a mean, old biddy but somebody in her family, someone she was friendly with, had to care about her. And you read more about the story, and you find out the juicy detail that Bernie was gay (this is only hinted at in the movie with townspeople’s suspicions and a generally “light in the loafers” persona for Bernie). In real life, several tapes of Bernie having sex with male residents of the town were found. It’s insinuated that Marjorie may have had an onset of dementia, which would have been an incredibly difficult thing for Bernie to have to deal with on his own. And then, of course, there was the money, much of which Bernie was taking for himself and handing out Robin Hood like to citizens in the town.
All to say, the real truth was very, very likely even more fascinating than the surface story told in the movie. It would have taken a lot more effort, to be sure, to uncover more details and work them into the story, but there was likely an even better, much more nuanced tale to be told than the one Linklater chose to tell. In some ways, in fact, Linklater may have done his job almost too well with the way he told the story. I have read several reviews where the reviewer, in all seriousness, says that the effectiveness of Bernie lies in Linklater’s ability to pose the question of whether a community or the law itself should rule in some cases. This is a scary proposition to bring up on any serious level considering the movie tells a very basic tale of a nice guy killing a mean old shrew and a few busy bodies in the town seeming to be happy about it. On the other hand, that Linklater can tell a story this thin so well and Black can put in such an effective performance as to draw that level of sympathy and get people to fall for the bait so easily is a testament to what each of them do in this movie. In the moments you forget it’s a true story, you ride along and chuckle at the absurdity of it all. When you remember it is true, you’re still going to chuckle at it all, but you might feel a little guilty about it. Oh, and Jack Black’s singing in this movie is golden.