Archive for August 24, 2021

Weakened at Bernie’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2021 by dcairns
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Thanks for David Ehrenstein for recommending Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, the 2011 black comedy with Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. I would probably say I’d skipped it when it came out because of my disappointment at ME AND ORSON WELLES, which had struck me as an able impersonation in search of a movie, and a continuation of the longstanding tradition of moderate talents trying to pull Welles down to their own level by character assassination. But frankly I have no memory of BERNIE even coming out, so I think I just missed it.

I don’t know for sure how I would have felt about the movie if I’d paid to see it on the big screen, because I ended up viewing it for free as part of my free month of Amazon Prime (I hope to cancel at the end of the month and put one over on Bezos). I might have found it cinematically thin. It’s not inventive, but it has one big idea and it uses that skilfully.

It has one little idea too — intertitles made up as funeral cards.*

The big idea is a mockumentary approach, in which real townsfolk from Carthage, Texas, where the events of this true story occurred, are shuffled together with actors and presented in interviews cut into the action as a kind of Greek chorus. Linklater’s idea, drawn from the research of co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, was that nobody had really attempted to capture a community in a fiction film this way. The technique also no doubt helped Linklater shoot the film in 22 days. You never notice that a lot of the action is unseen.

Jack Black is Bernie, a camp Texan assistant funeral director who befriends a grumpy and neurotic octogenarian millionairess, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. He becomes her sole heir, but snaps under her constant bullying and shoots her dead. When the crime is eventually, inevitably discovered, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) realises he’s going to have a hell of a time convicting the blatantly guilty Bernie, even though he’s confessed, since Bernie was the most beloved man in Carthage.

It all illustrates Linklater’s premise that life is a lot like high school — if you’re popular, you get away with stuff.

Really interesting set of performances. The interviewees are generally voluble and charismatic and funny-looking, so the leads aren’t required to tamp down their performance styles to fit some image of documentary realism. Black essays a subtle Texas twang and a swishy manner — it’s not overdone but Black is Black, and always somewhat theatrical. But it’s more restrained than the obvious comparison perf, Rod Steiger’s Mr. Joyboy in THE LOVED ONE. McConaughey scores heavily in a disfiguring hairstyle, capturing the innate theatricality of the politician/lawman. He’s the funniest one. MacLaine makes an interesting choice — since the whole town is literally talking about how mean Marjorie is, MacLaine avoids becoming a THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN grotesque, and finds ways to make her unlikeable character at least somewhat sympathetic. Everything is underplayed. There’s a hint of tragedy in her shrill neediness. Most of the hostile defensiveness is played flat — it’s evidently a barrier protecting something uncomfortably raw. When she gets hysterical, it’s scary. You’d like to pity Marjorie — at a distance.

The movie has a fascinating afterlife — Linklater helped get the really Bernie released in 2014, and a condition of his release was that he stay with Linklater. Which he did. Then he had his appeal and got 99 years. He’s eligible for release at the end of this decade. Trying Bernie for first degree murder was clearly unjust — as if pointed out, the murder was clearly unplanned, because it was impossible to pass off as an accident. What sunk Bernie was his fitting into that familiar pattern — the clearly gay man who wins the affections of a wealthy older woman. But any mercenary motive is clearly separate from his eventually snapping and snuffing her. Except that if he had been with her purely out of affection, he would presumably have left long before.

You can’t quite see it here but she’s got precipices on her wall to mount her late husband’s hunting trophies in lifelike poses — though not as lifelike as they would have been before they met Mr. Nugent. One half expects to see his embalmed remains squatting on a cliff ledge of his own, gun in hand.

Linklater and Hollandsworth make a few slight distortions and omissions — Bernie’s gay sex tapes are left out, and his shooting of Marjorie sanitised slightly (the reality, one shot from a distance and three more as she lay on the floor, is a little more unappealing) but it manages its tone, which is a real trick. I didn’t feel it was exploitative. making black comedy out of true life stories where real people got hurt is a dicey business. Importantly, Linklater keeps the broader comedy away from Marjorie’s scenes and the murder itself is suitably grim. This has to be managed with Black, who is naturally a funny guy, present in those scenes giving that performance.

*Jeff Bezos won’t let me framegrab from Amazon Prime, curse him.