The shifty tonal ground where director/co-writer Richard Linklater has planted his new film Bernie is staked out in the opening scene. After two silent-movie intertitles announce "This You're Fixin' to See/Is A True Story" as melancholy string music plays in the background, we are shown funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) as he teaches a few mortuary-science students how to prepare a recently deceased person for viewing. Delicately yet firmly, Bernie explains and demonstrates the key parts of this process — glue the eyes shut, insert a piece of plastic to preserve the shape of the mouth, apply the right amount of makeup, and be sure to tilt the head to the left ("in greeting"). His performance is met with polite applause. It's an informative, funny, strange opening for an informative, funny, strange, and possibly great film.
Adapted from a terrific 1998 Texas Monthly article written by journalist and co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie is a tragicomic work noteworthy for the way it plays around with notions of authenticity, realism, and local color. For example, in addition to the usual dramatizations and embellishments, Bernie's remarkable story is retold, added to, and complicated by witty testimonials from 21 residents of Carthage, Texas, the town where most of the events in the film take place. Even though their comments were pre-scripted, these nonprofessional actors sound down-home, informal, and sincere as they recount Bernie's unusual relationship with rich, wicked old widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). One man describes Nugent thusly: "That ol' heifer — she'd turn down a loan for a hobby."
And on at least two occasions, the film's vox populi is more than just a bunch of gossips. They occasionally engage with and challenge the assertions made by the film's stars, notably district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). These townsfolk (with some help from a couple of professional actors pretending to be townsfolk) get most of the film's biggest laughs. They also emphasize the way that public perception shapes the contours of a life, especially in a small town.
The townspeople's confusion and ambivalence about Bernie's presence in the town — is he really as charitable and saintly as he looks? Why does he like old ladies so much? Is he, as one man posits, "a little light in the loafers"? — only increases during the second half of the film. But Jack Black's quietly flamboyant performance generates an atmosphere of unease from the start. Black's agility, grace, demonic eyes, and ski-jump belly (aided by some high-waisted pants) are put to maximum effect here. He's soft-spoken, gentle, and kind, but there's always a sense of something else lurking behind the curtain he draws back whenever he appears in public.
Like his contemporary Steven Soderbergh, Linklater's films often function as an indirect commentary on whatever genre he happens to be working in. So while Bernie may look like Linklater's version of a true-crime picture, it's also, like the previous Linklater-Black collaboration School of Rock, a kind of musical. Bernie embraces both the hymns and the Broadway/Hollywood numbers he sings, and Black is clever and restrained enough to pull back from full-on parody whenever Bernie is in the throes of each song. Bernie's enthusiasm and love of music is both genuine and sinister, adding one more layer of unease to this singular movie.
Opening Friday, May 25th