Bernie

A mortician – excuse me, funeral director – strikes up an unusual friendship with a rich widow in a tiny rural town. Bernie Tiede is an upstanding member of the community, well liked by all. Marjorie Nugent, on the other hand is a mean, spiteful old woman. After her husband dies, she takes over her husband’s business with stern control. She’s the kind of woman that turns down loan applications at the bank simply because she enjoys telling people NO. Bernie makes several attempts to befriend Marjorie. She eventually relents. They become close – attending church services, having lunch together and taking little road trips. Pretty soon, they’re traveling to Broadway shows, embarking on cruises and flying to far off places like Egypt and Russia, always in first class of course. The townspeople begin to talk.

Bernie is an odd picture. This marks the second time that director Richard Linklater and Jack Black have worked together. 2003’s The School of Rock was a highly successful collaboration that remains Linklater’s biggest hit. Bernie is based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by journalist Skip Hollandsworth who also co-wrote the screenplay. In that publication, he chronicled the real relationship between Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas. While the rhythms of Bernie are a bit quirky for mainstream tastes, it’s still a rewarding experience.

Bernie’s motives remain refreshingly ambiguous. Whether he befriends this unlikable but wealthy woman out of the goodness of his heart or if he’s more of an opportunist with monetary objectives, it’s not quite clear. The community clearly loves Bernie and hates Marjorie. They defend his reputation to the utmost degree. At times Linklater features the actual townspeople talking directly to the camera regarding the principal couple. It’s during these perfectly blended segments that the proceedings feel like a documentary. The authentic recollections of the residents of Carthage are some of the most memorable moments in the entire production. The colorful array of the people involved, invokes a comedic element. Yet the tone is never mocking.

The account is an equal mix of dark comedy and serious drama. On the surface, the script is somewhat uneventful, but taken as a whole it’s rather engaging. Having few lines, Shirley MacLaine must rely mostly on facial expressions and body language to portray Marjorie Nugent. This is Bernie’s movie, told from his perspective. Jack Black plays the title character with an effeminately sunny disposition. At first it’s a little one-note, but look deeper and you’ll find what he does here is brilliantly subtle. He makes the townsfolk’s reactions to what ultimately happens, easier to comprehend. The aftermath is rendered darkly humorous. The plot takes an admittedly grave turn, but the script remains  indifferent. Linklater doesn’t persuade, only presents. As a result the narrative is lacking in a purposeful point of view, but that’s its allure. Indeed it’s difficult to tell just how the filmmaker regards his subjects. It’s a tribute to his direction that the mood is decidedly more “I’d like to introduce you to these people that really exist” instead of “look at how ridiculous these people are.” It’s up to the viewer to make a judgment. That’s where this modest little film succeeds.

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14 Responses to “Bernie”

  1. These smaller films can be pleasantly surprising sometimes. I wanted to see this, but I have a full schedule this week with a few other movies that I have to check out. Maybe I’ll get to see it sooner or later.

    Good review.

  2. What IS the difference between a mortician and a funeral director. Everyone corrects me for some reason when I say one instead of the other, and when I read the interrupter in the beginning of your review, I decided to look it up. Wikipedia says they’re the same thing, but I’m still suspecting there’s a difference.

    Anyway, great review, as usual. I really, really want to see this film, but it’s not playing anywhere near me. It looks like such a nice, dark comedy, and I’d probably love it more than most other do, because I absolutely LOVE that kind of humor. I’ll be seeing Dark Shadows on Monday, in case I didn’t let you know already, so that’ll be my next theatrical experience, but it’s 95% likely that I’ll have to wait for this one to come out to DVD. Oh, and I’m FINALLY watching The Godfather tonight. So I have an exciting movie weekend planned. Thanks; once again, you gave this a rating I didn’t expect. I guessed 2 1/2 stars, but I was met with 3 stars. :)

    Happy Star Wars’ 35th Anniversary!!

    • It’s just a question of semantics. The difference refers to an instance in the movie where Bernie corrects someone who calls him a mortician. It’s like the difference between a garbage man and a sanitation engineer. One sounds better than the other.

      Good luck with Dark Shadows. I didn’t really enjoy it much, but you’re watching The Godfather tonight and that’s one of the greatest films of all time. Have a great weekend!

    • Looking forward to reading your review.

      • Apparently there’s a possibility I won’t be seeing it…but I’m hoping and praying that I get to because I’ve been waiting for so long. IDGAF if it’s bad, I just want to see it because I love Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

  3. I’m sad that I will have to wait for the home release to be able to see this one. Every time I read something about it my interest is piqued. Nice review!

    • Yeah Bernie is in pretty limited distribution. It’s not the kind of movie that would appeal to the masses anyway, but if you’re looking for something different, it will entertain.

  4. Nice review. The premise is certainly interesting and Black can be very good given the right material.

  5. Bernie was a very odd character. Lovable but mysterious . He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. A mental brainwashing can probably numb your mind.

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