What I saw in Bernie’s was Some Like It Hot.
I hadn’t seen Weekend at Bernie’s since its release in 1989. I was eleven then, and in the decades since, I’d managed to retain nothing about the movie beyond its crass, high concept: Richard and Larry, two broke, young accountants for a Manhattan insurance firm (played by Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy), find evidence of millions of dollars in corporate theft. But their high-rolling boss, Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser), is the actual thief; in the guise of a congratulatory gesture, he invites Richard and Larry for a weekend at his Hamptons home, then arranges for a mafia hit man to meet them there first. But But the mafia don pulls a switcheroo, Lomax gets whacked instead, and when Richard and Larry arrive to find his body slumped in a chair, they do what any movie worth its weight in farce would: they use Lomax’s corpse as an all-access pass to infiltrate a world far beyond their means. Perhaps because in 1989, we weren’t ready for a buddy comedy built entirely around necro-play, Bernie’s opened poorly at the box office. It was panned by critics.
Yet, somewhat like the body at the core of the film, Bernie’s has somehow stayed alive in our cultural memory. As with the Police Academy films, Summer School, or Just One of the Guys, Bernie’s has become a kind of apologetic, cultural shorthand for a time when our tastes veered toward the horribly inexplicable. But people seem drawn back to Bernie’s more than any other schlocky comedy of that era, especially in recent years. In 2011 a Colorado news team cited Bernie’s to describe a real crime in which two Denver guys found their buddy dead, then “took his body — and his credit card — out for a night of diners, bar hopping, burritos and a strip club.” There are two Facebook campaigns and an online petition to jumpstart another sequel (Bernie’s 2 hit theaters in 1992), and at least one t-shirt dedicated to the same cause (as of this writing, a total of 948 people have “liked” this idea). Just weeks ago Bill Maher lit into the ancient members of Congress by calling it a “Weekend at Bernie’s government.”
Something about Bernie’s sticks with us. But what?
For twenty-four years, I thought it was its ironic value, and when it came on that night I expected to be transported to a time when I was far too young to understand what “good” comedy was. But it was too late. Perhaps I’d taken too many “film as literature” classes in undergrad, or streamed my way through too much of the Criterion collection, but now all I saw when I looked at Bernie’s were the sensibilities, timing, and even shot makeup of Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic.
For one, Bernie’s pickpockets the Some
Like It Hot’s plot, wholesale: unlucky,
prohibition-era musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), witness
a New York mob hit, then hide out by posing as women in an all-girl
band—fronted by Marilyn Monroe—at a Florida resort stuffed with millionaires,
and when one falls for Jerry’s lady version, “Daphne,” things get interesting. Down-and-out
buddy trope? Check. Mafia-related danger? Check. Taboo as a dramatic hook?
Absolutely. But reputation-wise, Some
Like It Hot bests Bernie’s on all
fronts. Currently atop AFI’s list of greatest American comedies, any mention of
the film conjures Wilder’s golden catalogue (Sunset Boulevard, Double
Indemnity, The Apartment, etc.)
and talk of its
From the early club scenes to Joe and Jerry’s arrival at the resort, Wilder layers the world of Some Like It Hot with dark excess: rum-running in hearses, police raids, Vassar girls on the hunt for sugar daddies (Monroe’s character is actually named Sugar Kane), and Wilder puts his heroes on the outside looking in, where they become their most dangerous. Bernie’s director Ted Kotcheff (of Fun With Dick & Jane and, oddly enough, First Blood fame) updates that world to the boom-time eighties with just as much ingenuity. Bernie’s opens with a montage of sweltering Manhattan—soundtracked with an eighties-tastic Jermaine Stewart cut, the chorus of which repeats “some like it hot”— as stodgy Richard and proto-slacker Larry schlep to the office on a Saturday to number-crunch for Lomax, a stand-in for the sharks and soulless moneymakers of the Reagan/Bush I era. While both films traffic in deception, in Bernie’s it begins way before Lomax is killed, and the deception here is less for the sake of survival than for that of social preservation. In an early scene, Richard’s first date with the new company intern, Gwen, goes south once she realizes Richard’s been lying all night about being the heir to a fortune. When the two meet again that weekend, in the Hamptons, Richard launches a quest to convince Gwen he’s trustworthy enough to sleep with—all while passing off a dead guy as alive.And it’s once both films reach their moneyed destinations that Kotcheff works his hardest to keep up with Wilder’s tone and aesthetic, from the pacing to the look. From getaways to seduction scenes, boats and waterways play huge roles in each film, and Kotcheff, along with his cinematographer, François Protat, frame Larry’s and Richard’s Hampton arrival shots to match the way we see Joe and Jerry arrive as “Josephine” and “Daphne” in Florida: docks, expansive skies, sand leading to mansions. And both films waste zero time establishing the natives of these lands as, at best, absolute idiots. Within seconds of Joe and Jerry’s arrival in Florida, Some Like It Hot gives us a meet-cute between Lemmon’s Daphne and rich bachelor Osgood Fielding III that results in an improbable (and, it must be said, date-rape-ish) bout of elevator grab-ass. In Bernie’s we get it moments after Richard and Larry grasp their predicament, when the house is invaded by the now-dead Lomax’s hangers-on, all zombified versions of rich archetypes and clichés far too self-involved to realize they’re humble-bragging to a corpse. “He’s dead,” Richard says to a half-in-the-bag partygoer. “That’s the idea, isn’t it?” he replies.
Wilder seems more interested, as his film goes on, in making Monroe the butt of his film’s jokes, particularly the plotline in which Joe/Josephine tricks Monroe’s Sugar into sleeping with him by disguising himself, yet again, this time as the heir to the Shell oil fortune. But in Bernie’s, the wealthy remain Kotcheff’s mark, even as the joke goes increasingly stale. Every scene with Lomax in public is an indictment of him and his kind, as when his body is met on the beach with big hellos from oblivious Hamptonites, or when, in the film’s most bizarrely sterile scene, Lomax actually gets laid. Even Gwen, ever burned by Richard’s cover-ups and lies, refuses to acknowledge Lomax is dead until an exasperated Larry drags his corpse to her feet.
Both films make a case that to move in wealthy circles is to engage in a certain kind of self-deception, but each film is only as rich as its choice of taboo, and it’s here that Kotcheff’s effort gets a bit exposed. Wilder’s taboo—homosexuality—allowed him to crack open what could have been a boilerplate crime caper, then push it into thrilling territory that muddles the way we think about love, money, redemption, and self, leading to one of the most memorable endings in American film history. And Bernie’s? Bernie’s has a dead guy at its heart, which presents about as much opportunity for narrative growth as you’d imagine. The hardest part of re-watching the movie after so long, after noticing its potential, was how it devolved in its final act into easy dead-guy jokes. Dead guy falls off a boat. Dead guy as a life raft. Dead guy as deus ex machina. I could almost feel Kotcheff realizing the limits of his ambition for Bernie’s, then, like his protagonists, deciding to get the most he can out of the conceit and exit the movie as cleanly as possible.
But maybe the most important quality of Bernie’s—and why it’s stuck with us so long—is its inhabiting of the spirit of Some Like It Hot, which presented a controversial but universal concept to an audience in a digestible, non-threatening way. Some Like It Hot was revolutionary because it was a movie about coming out that skirted all the murky—and in that era, legal--complications. Bernie’s performs a similar trick, only with something as bleak as death, which might be the key to why we still carry affection for it. Weekend at Bernie’s was released three years after children my age had huddled excitedly around a TV, only to see the Space Shuttle Challenger explode, violently, in midair. It came out two years after news channels broadcast footage of a press conference in which Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer removed a revolver from a manila envelope and shot himself through the mouth. It’s not hard to see how that generation might harbor a soft spot for a movie that starred a corpse, yet wasn’t about death at all. Instead, Weekend at Bernie’s becomes about two young people who confront death and, for at least a weekend, find new, crude ways in which to defy it—which, when you think about it, isn’t the worst possibility to find yourself revisiting now and then.Mike Scalise's essays and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Agni, The Paris Review, PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.