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Bernie Review


RATING:
(2.5 STARS)

Richard Linklater’s Bernie works on a number of levels, but it’s hamstrung by an awkward, repetitive structure which features real-life individuals sharing their recollections about the film’s based-on-real-events subject matter. It’s indicative of Warren Beatty’s Reds—a film that employed this technique to great effect—but Bernie‘s small-town roots aren’t able to support a storytelling method that’s designed to (or at least seems to) amplify the importance of everything around it. Thankfully, the story’s natural dark humor and solid central performances keep it moving along at a fun, brisk pace.

Jack Black plays our titular character, the assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. By all accounts (and we get many), Bernie is the sweetest guy this little old town has ever seen. He’s friendly to everyone. He gives back to the community whenever possible. And he cares for the poor widows who pass through his funeral parlor like you wouldn’t believe.

One of these widows is Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the most ornery old broad to ever call Carthage home. Bernie, however, treats her no differently than he would another local widow; In fact, he’s probably kinder to Marjorie and he certainly calls upon her more often than the others. Marjorie and Bernie’s relationship blossoms into something that resembles actual romance, though Marjorie’s demanding nature is starting to make Bernie a little crazy. One day, he just snaps and shoots her four times in the back. Unsure what to do, he goes on pretending she’s alive—telling those who ask (there aren’t many) that she’s become ill. But a pestering financial advisor (Richard Robichaux) and a slick DA named Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) just won’t let Marjorie’s disappearance lie.

With Bernie, Linklater asks us if murder could ever be justified. Bernie’s case is perhaps one of the most compelling for justifiable murder; Plenty of the Carthage residents interviewed here have forgiven Bernie for his sins without much thought or trouble. He does good things with Marjorie’s money, makes people’s lives better. But the fact remains that he killed someone, so he must face justice. The trial itself is a thing of beauty. McConaughey and Black totally own their roles, especially late in the film, and seeing Danny Buck work his magic is alone worth the price of admission.

And the film is funny—mighty funny, actually. Black restrains himself for the most part, but that doesn’t mean he lacks presence or charisma. His Bernie is a complex individual; He’s full of life, yet he seems so content to repress anything that might seem self-interested. Black gives us glimpses of each side while maintaining the kind of energy we’ve come to expect from him. This performance, combined with the story’s inherently satirical nature (a prosecutor requests a change of venue because a murder defendant is too popular?) will keep you laughing throughout the proceedings.

But it’s hard to shake the idea that Bernie just isn’t as good as it could have been. Though I was rather enthralled on a number of occasions, a minor sense of disappointment accompanied me throughout the film, and I keep coming back to the structure, which becomes a bit of a crutch for Linklater. It’s so repetitive—person after person extols Bernie to the point that we just get it already—and ultimately, it doesn’t add up to much. The same sentiments could have been conveyed in a minute or two of screen time (rather than the 10 or 15 these interviews get). Hell, the performances are good enough that we probably wouldn’t have needed to hear from anyone other than Black, MacLaine, and McConaughy for the point to come across clearly.

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