Based on a true story and from respected director Richard Linklater ( ‘A Scanner Darkly’ 06, ‘Me and Orson Welles’ 08 ) this looks slick enough, has good performances from the central players Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, and the real events are reasonably interesting. The problem is, it’s put together in such a long winded way that, not only can we see a mile off what’s coming, it becomes very difficult indeed to remain attentive enough to really care. This is a fairly serious role for Black, and as shown by several previous divergences from his normal genre (see ‘Margot at the Wedding’ 07 for another memorable one), he is good in this, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for his depiction of the titular Bernie, a mortician who is well loved by everyone in the small town of Carthage Texas that he moves to after graduation, bowling them over with niceness and showering the elderly residents with attention and gifts, in particular Marjorie Nugent played by Ms Beatty (Shirley MacLaine is Warren Beatty’s sister, in case you didn’t know).
Bernie is so nice, however, he is not particularly luminous as the central character in a movie, something which it has perhaps been attempted to accommodate for by having most of the story told in the past tense via interviews from many of the town residents, some real, some actors, including district attorney McConaughey wearing very familiar cinematic boots, and our view continually switches between these interviews, with the interviewer silent, to the events that they are talking about, and since they talk about Bernie himself in the past tense, we are to wonder what happened to him…
It’s just not engaging at all, the constant flitting between interviews begins to drag really quickly, and there is an ambiguity over the ego and motivation of ‘Bernie’, and indeed the actor playing him; he constantly sings in the church for example, and there is an element of Ok we all know Jack Black can sing, but is this really adding anything to the film? A stronger comedic vein running parallel to the story might have actually helped a lot (it’s listed as black comedy, but I think black is a synonym for absent here). The film does have the distinction of being one of only two that I’ve ever seen to have received a chorus of applause from the audience at events mid film, which is admittedly impressive ( the other was Frank Darabont’s ‘The Mist’ 07 ).
11.05.14 For a very interesting recent update on the true story involved, have a gander at this article from The Guardian. RD