Linklater’s Bernie Turns A Fascinating Murder Story Into A Shallow Romp
[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]
Bernie, Richard Linklater’s newest film, is an odd, disjointed, always fascinating but ultimately shallow movie about Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a mortician and town vivant in Carthage, Texas, who inexplicably takes up with a nasty widow twice his age and then just as inexplicably murders her. The film is based off a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth (who shares screenwriting credit here), and has all the elements of drama except the drama itself.
Two enigmas swirl about the film, the first Black’s Tiede, an eccentric, gregarious, Christian and possibly gay assistant funeral director for whom the entire town of Carthage swoons. He sings like an angel at church, dispenses tax advice to his blue collar buddies, and goes above and beyond for the widows whose husbands he prepares for the afterlife.
Bernie meets his biggest challenge in Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a modern-day Faulkner figure who terrorizes Carthage as the tight-fisted owner of the town’s central bank. Bernie refuses to be rebuffed by the widow, and before long he draws her out of her house, and then is taking trips and cruises on her dime. But as Bernie is accepted into her home and purse, he finds her complex of dominance intractable: no sooner is he in her will than he’s also in her command. Being Marjorie’s servant is too much even for the cherubic Bernie: he puts four bullets in her back and hides her in her freezer, preserving her body until he can give it the burial he, as a professional mortician, knows it deserves.
Bernie is as fascinating a protagonist as one could hope for, but we never get any insight into why he so doggedly pursues the widow, especially once his Christian generosity succeeds in overcoming her crusty facade. Black is a poor choice for the lead; everything that makes him a gifted comic actor—that incessantly mugging face, his ironic knowingness—destroys him as a dramatic one, something that’s been on display ever since he spun like a top through the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Here he plays Bernie like John Waters’ vintage store owner in theSimpsons, as if he just can’t get over how dang quirky his own self is, and it layers a patina of self-awareness onto Bernie the man couldn’t possibly have possessed. Even when Black, a talented vocalist, takes the mic at church, there’s an element of Tenacious D-level ham that makes us doubt the sincerity of the character whose sincerity is the very point of the film.
Shirley MacLaine does a much better job as Marjorie, but is restrained by her underwritten character. Marjorie Nugent is the second enigma of the film, as much a screen for the projection of the town’s suspicions and prejudices as the shut-in of Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” But the film refuses to plumb her depths as well. We don’t know why she’s mean; why don’t know why she’s estranged from her family; we don’t know what leads her to treat Bernie the way she does, either when she makes him the first person she allows into her life in years, or when she makes him pay dearly for that allowance. There’s a wonderful scene in which Bernie pleads for Marjorie to stop chewing her food so much, the one pet peeve of a soul who, as a bit character puts it, just doesn’t know how to tell someone to “piss off.” The mischievous joy in MacLaine’s face as she continues to chew the bite and pointlessly torture Bernie is the best moment in the whole film, its one true investigation into the nature of power and cruelty that the rest of the movie merely references.
As for the rest of the movie, it strikes an hokey tone more in key with Black’s mobile eyebrows than MacLaine’s wily intelligence. Wacky banjo music plays under the townspeople’s more-Texas-than-Texas aphorisms, and as much fun as the film truly has in exploring small town idiosyncrasies (one man says Texas is really five states, then goes on to list seven examples), this rompish feel makes for a disjointed tone most reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s uber-strange The Informant!. That film was more interested in participating in its hero’s solipsism than exploring it, and the result was an uneven match of tone and subject, a lighthearted jape that undercut the tragedy of its delusional protagonist. “Isn’t this so much fun?” the movie seemed to be saying, even as lives quietly dissipated.
The same problem haunts Bernie. The entire drama is taken as a quirky escapade; the movie ends on such a note of whimsy that you leave the theater without completely understanding that a sincere and generous person has been put in prison for the rest of his life after betraying his faith and morality by shooting another human being.
Texas Monthly is supremely adept at striking the right balance between their state’s big-haired baroqueness and the gruesome crimes that unfold there. But film adaptations have had trouble capturing the combination. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s The Client List began life as a Texas Monthly article; Jim Carrey’s character in the excruciating I Love You, Phillip Morris was a regular feature in the magazine’s Bum Steers list. Both of those films failed in greater degree than Bernie, but for much the same reason. Everybody is having a zany good time—and Skip Hollandsworth, whom I’ve seen describe stories in editorial meetings, always has a zany good time telling them—but they seem to be taking the drama for granted. Bernie turns Bernie Tiede’s tragedy into a sort of adventure, and in doing so deprives him of the dignity he so righteously showed his corpses. The last time someone treated him that way, he shot her dead. Shouldn’t we take that seriously?