Bernie (Millenium Entertainment, PG-13)

BERNIE sqBernie plays something like if Linklater and Christopher Guest had teamed up to co-direct Fargo. The film is about an odd murder case in rural Texas, and unlike the claim in Fargo’s title cards, it really is based on a true story this time around.

 

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Although he’s pretty widely (and correctly) considered to be one of the best, most important directors of his generation, it’s been close to a decade since Richard Linklater has made a good film. (By my count, the most recent one was 2004’s Before Sunset.) But here we have his new film, Bernie, which in a lot of ways plays like Linklater’s greatest hits: It’s set in his native Texas (like his 1991 film Slacker or 1993’s Dazed & Confused), and it stars Jack Black (as did his 2003 film School of Rock) and Matthew McConaughey (whose only great performance in his career was in the aforementioned Dazed & Confused, his first film role); we’re only really missing Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and digital rotoscoping to hit all of Linklater’s greatest touchstones. But beyond the familiarity of the cast and setting, Bernie is finally another film of Linklater’s to recommend.

Bernie plays something like if Linklater and Christopher Guest had teamed up to co-direct Fargo. The film is about an odd murder case in rural Texas, and unlike the claim in Fargo’s title cards, it really is based on a true story this time around. The short version of that story is that in Carthage, Texas, a small, sweet town in the eastern part of the state, a much-loved man in the community named Bernie Tiede (Black) shot an old woman named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) four times in the back, and then at least sort of tried to cover up the murder. As if that’s not strange enough, when it eventually was discovered that Bernie murdered Nugent, the townsfolk had trouble finding any fault in Bernie’s actions and didn’t want to see him go to jail. They were, after all, so enamored with nice, old Bernie, and had always hated that mean Mrs. Nugent.

A big reason for this is that, aside from the murder thing, Bernie seems to be an extremely nice, helpful man. He works as a funeral director and is very good at his job, but he’s also active in the church (turns out that it doesn’t take much change in appearance or personality for Jack Black to play a convincing evangelical), helpful around town, etc. Amazingly, the film finds a good way of portraying how nice Bernie is; in truth, it doesn’t make fun of its characters at all, be they the townsfolk who don’t want to convict Bernie, to Sheriff Danny Buck (McConaughey), who really wants to get Bernie’s conviction, to the severely unpleasant Mrs. Nugent, to Bernie himself. While the story might be hard to believe, for the most part, Linklater makes this a very human comedy, and never plays the situation for easy laughs.

Most of the plentiful laughs from the movie instead come from the oral history-style random interviews with the residents of Carthage, who have funny things to say about Bernie, Mrs. Nugent, the murder, Texas itself, and whatever else in on their mind. The beginning and end of the film wing on by on account of how funny the talking-head interviews with the townspeople are; when they get sparser toward the middle of the film, it begins to drag a little bit. Still, it’s sort of necessary to get away from them for a while just to get to the business of telling the actual story of the film—which is, of course, interesting enough on its own, even if it does pale in comparison to the local color.

Part of me wonders if this film won’t be a bit of a hard sell, given that Black’s star has been somewhat on the decline lately, and the type of person who will enjoy this film is probably not exactly the same type of person who would enjoy the average Jack Black film. But really, Linklater has always been the best at directing Black (and McConaughey, come to think of it), and if you’re sympathetic to wanting to kill someone because the way they chew annoys you, this is the movie for you. | Pete Timmermann

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