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Bernie—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
April 27, 2012 12:49 AM
2 Comments
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Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in Bernie
Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

Some films—even good ones—fall neatly into one category or another, but I often find myself drawn to movies that defy pigeonholing, like Richard Linklater’s Bernie. Is it a comedy? Yes, in part. Is it a character study? Certainly. Is it a true-crime story? Absolutely. Does it have two outstanding performances in the leading roles? Definitely. If you like Jack Black and/or Shirley MacLaine, the movie is a must-see.

Black plays the title character, who prepares bodies for their final viewing at a funeral parlor in Carthage, Texas and prides himself on his work. An outgoing fellow, he is well-liked throughout the community, where the subject of homosexuality never enters the conversation. MacLaine portrays a wealthy woman who is, by all accounts, the meanest person in town. No one has a good word to say about her, and no one can—or even wants to—get close to her…until Bernie enters her life.

That said, the less you know about Bernie before you see it the more you will enjoy the process of discovery that Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth had in mind. It was Hollandsworth’s 1998 article in Texas Monthly about the almost unbelievable real-life doings in the town of Carthage that inspired the Austin-based filmmaker to pursue this as a film project, which turned into a labor of love.

Matther McConaughey in Bernie-325
Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

It is also a portrait of East Texas. Our guide to this distinct area of a diverse state is Sonny Carl Davis, whom some film buffs may remember as the costar of Eagle Pennell’s landmark indie feature The Whole Shootin’ Match. His presence denotes a continuity in Texas storytelling on film; besides, he lights up the screen.

Linklater also cleverly integrates footage of real-life citizens who remember the real-life characters played by Black and MacLaine, further blurring the line between documentary and dramatization. (The woman who smokes up a storm while casting aspersions on MacLaine’s character is played by costar Matthew McConaughey’s mother.)

Bernie is both entertaining and continually surprising; that’s a welcome combination in my book.

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2 Comments

  • Charles Haas | May 15, 2012 6:48 PMReply

    "Bernie" may "defy "pigeonholing," but this multivalent quality isn't necessarily a boon to the film.

    "Fans of Christopher Guest and Best in Show are advised to buy their tickets now to Richard Linklater’s new film, Bernie. Fans of Richard Linklater and his films, especially those of us who adore his films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, are advised to stay away. Even those of us who enjoyed his more commercial, though nonetheless amusing, The School of Rock, are advised to think twice.

    Bernie is a mockumentary that details the true story (in this case the accuracy of the story telling is not disputed) of a widely beloved assistant funeral home director, Bernie (Jack Black) in the small East Texas town of Carthage who befriends an older widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) after her husband passes, despite her ornery, unfriendly demeanor; she is described as a “bitch” by a local woman of a certain age in an interview, one of many with real residents of Carthage, creating a kind of documentary inside the mockumentary superstructure. Though, the critical apparatus could be viewed in reverse. This mise en abîme does not bring any greater truth to the enterprise, but remains dogged by that saddest of adjectives: ‘quirky.’..."

    See full review on my blog:
    http://lejournaldecharleshaas.com/2012/05/15/bernie-cannot-say-no-you-should-film-review-of-bernie/

  • Sonny Carl Davis | May 10, 2012 2:54 PMReply

    Thank you for your kind words. I am truly humbled.- SCD

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