Tuesday, May 15, 2012

BERNIE (2012)

Written by Skip Hollandsworth & Richard Linklater

Directed by Richard Linklater

Where & When: The Landmark, West Los Angeles, CA.  May 4, 2012 5:05PM

Jack Black and writer/director Richard Linklater who had great success with the 2003 film, "School of Rock" have come back together with "Bernie", a much darker comedy. This time they take on a story based on an unbelievably true incident but despite an exuberant performance by Mr. Black, their attempt to craft a droll and whimsical tale out of a senseless crime only ends up being wan and uninspired.

Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede (Black) was a mortician and a beloved member of the small community of Carthage, TX. People noticed that Bernie was a little different from the other men in town as he wasn't much of an athlete, he showed little interest in dating any of the eligible women and he was passionate about musical theater but he was such a warm, goodhearted gentleman who helped anyone in need as well as being a very active member of the church that his quirks were overlooked.

The exact opposite can be said about Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) as she's considered one of the most despised people in town. With her also being one of the wealthiest citizens (with a tight grip on her money), this allowed her to be unnecessarily unpleasant and cruel without repercussions.

After Marjorie's husband passes away, Bernie does what he does best; he goes to the home of the grieving to comfort them in their time of need. However, Marjorie has no interest in being comforted by Bernie but he is patient and persistent. Inexplicably, these two very different personalities with a forty-year age gap bonded with Bernie and Marjorie soon becoming very close, much to the confusion of the townspeople. This odd couple are inseparable as Bernie introduces Mrs. Nugent to the finer things in life as they dine at the best restaurants, shop at the most chicest stores while traveling around the world together, all on the newly generous widow's dime.

It doesn't take long before Bernie learns firsthand why Marjorie is so disliked by the entire town and even her own family as she constantly nags, berates and demands all of his time. Apparently fed up and much too nice to ever tell her off, Bernie loses it, shoots Marjorie in the back four times in her garage and places her body in a large food freezer. Bernie manages to cover up her disappearance for several months but inevitably, he is caught.

After he confesses to the crime, everyone in town comes to his defense as they can't believe that Bernie could ever possibly do anything so malicious and that she probably provoked him to the killing. The D.A., Danny "Buck" Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is far from convinced of Bernie's momentary loss of reason as he successfully earns a conviction of first degree murder.

The film sticks closely to Bernie's version of events but doesn't bring-up or question any of the possible other motives for the murder such as rumors that he actually killed Marjorie because she found out he had been stealing from her and was going to report him to the police or that she had changed her will so that only Bernie would inherit her vast fortune, cutting out her son. This version of Bernie also presents a problem as he doesn't seem to possess a single notable fault well, except for killing a woman in cold blood which is explained away as him simply being very frustrated. We are never shown even the possible hint of anything sinister in his personality which seems really hard to believe considering the crime committed.

The flat direction is not helped with the use of a faux-documentary style which does a great disservice to "Bernie" as everything seen is presented like actual facts when we know that's not possible considering this  story is only coming from the side of an unreliable, convicted felon. The screenplay (co-written with Skip Hollandsworth who wrote the 1998 article in the Texas Monthly magazine in which this is based) is much too concerned with remaining completely faithful to the source material that causes the film to lack any narrative tension or any opportunity for creative verve. It would have been interesting to have seen what someone like Charlie Kaufman, the idiosyncratic writer of the films, "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" would have done with this story.

This is all too bad because Mr. Black actually delivers quite an impressive performance. He is able to showcase the strengths he's best known for like his comedic skills and a pretty decent singing voice but also display his lesser seen dramatic range. The other headliners fare less well as their appearances amount to not much more than cameos with Mr. McConaughey sleep-walking through his typical Texan "good ole boy" routine while Ms MacLaine's character is nothing more than a cartoon with the actress not given anything to do but screech and look very sour. The only moments when the film actually comes to life is during the interviews with several of the residents of Carthage who colorfully express their opinions and ideas of what exactly happened between Bernie and Marjorie.

"Bernie" is an underwhelming comedy that offers too few laughs about a sensationalistic murder case that should have provided at least a few interesting or shocking revelations but it's so safe that it isn't able to raise even an eyebrow. The film's point-of-view is so one-sided that it shamelessly short-changes the victim as it seems that even Mr. Linklater, like most of the people of Carthage, is so convinced that such a nice guy couldn't possibly be guilty of committing premeditated murder.