Sometimes in life you have to acknowledge your steadfast views on a particular subject can be disproven. Yes folks, sometimes you have to admit you are wrong, which to some comes hard. This is my confession: I always detested Jack Black and everything he did, to the extent of denying is talent. I was wrong – he has talent, and with the right vehicle even his grating screen persona can deliver excellent results.
That vehicle is Bernie, a very black comedy “based on a true story” of Bernhardt Tiede II (evidence of which is provided in the closing titles) about the relationship between a philanthropic mortician, a widow who goes out of her way to offend anyone (Shirley MacLaine), a single-minded DA (Matthew McConaughey) and a town that loves Bernie for his selfless devotion to their good causes.
So why my change of heart? The man can clearly sing, and has ample opportunity to demonstrate those skills. He can also construct and play a likeable if flawed comic character, though I still doubt his capacity for creating a genuine character arc and performing a credible transformation, and the character of Bernie stays pretty much as is despite the things that happen to him. Even his courtroom tears would convince nobody, certainly not the jury.
Black does what he does unapologetically, to the delight of fans of King Kong, School of Rock and even the abominable reimagining of Gulliver’s Travels (a film so unspeakably awful it made my all-time top ten worst movie list.) You can’t criticise him for using those assets to enhance his career, so good luck to the guy.
So what does the screen Bernie do to make this movie watchable? With good comic timing, he comes under the influence of a jealous benefactor, inadvertently kills her, eventually comes to trial, but then finds redemption in prison by continuing his good works, but he does it in his own inimitable and somewhat camp style, that’s what. It is after all a comedy in which the anti-hero is lauded as hero, much to the frustration of the DA who describes Bernie as the “angel of death.”
Bernie is a decent film based on a slight tale, using the comments of the townsfolk of Carthage, Texas in finest documentary fashion to supplement the meagre action. Safe to say it uses these devices to poke gentle fun at all the Texans in its eye line, though I don’t think they objected to their own 15 seconds of fame.
Perhaps most of all, Bernie is a perfect example of a director playing to the strengths of its cast, for which Richard Linklater deserves due credit. Note the skill here, for where you are dealing with life’s genuine eccentrics, it is painfully easy to overplay and lose the true comedy to a misguided sense of desperation. Linklater strikes the right balance and also reigns in the worst excesses of Black acting to good effect.
Not that actors as brilliant as MacLaine and McConaughey need any serious prompting to deliver the goods, only a decent script and sympathetic close-ups. Both are generous ensemble players too, refusing to hog the limelight and allowing the eponymous Bernie to steal the show, though to my mind they are the real actors on display here.
Don’t expect too much, but enjoy what there is: a mildly diverting hour-and-a-half with a few chuckles along the way. Hosannah!