So you’re scrolling through NetFlix for something (anything) to watch since you’ve finished Breaking Bad and it’s not August 11th yet, and you’re about to settle for The Avengers (again) because you just can’t find anything else, when you see Jack Black wearing an odd smirk on his face as “Bernie” scrolls across the screen. You say to yourself, “Self, Jack Black is funny. Why haven’t I heard of this one? It must suck.” You scroll on by.
Honey, that was a mistake. Go back.
“Bernie” is brilliant. It is the completely unbelievable absolutely true story of Bernie Tiede, The Nicest Man in Carthage, Texas, and Marjorie Nugent, The Meanest Woman Who Ever Drew Breath in Carthage, and possibly Anywhere Else For That Matter. I hesitate to tell you anything else about the story because it’s just so outlandish, the movie will be better the less you know of the plot. The film was made in 2011 for pennies by Hollywood’s standards, and only made a teensy $9 million dollar dent in ticket sales.
Parental Caveats: this ain’t for the youngsters. It’s just too weird. However, my seventeen-year-old daughter watched it with us, and totally got it.
A movie about this so-strange-it-must-be-true story has to be a bit…off. Dark. Funny in an unsettling “Oh-my-gawd-I-can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-at-this” sort of way. This is not a film for everybody. There’s a bit of a heebie-jeebie quality to it.
If you enjoy Wes Anderson-esque quirkiness, though, you might enjoy “Bernie.” Richard Linklater directs a talented cast that collectively delivers a mesmerizingly honest portrayal of the story. Jack Black lends further credence to my hypothesis that comedic actors often tell dramatic stories better: comedy is often a thin veil over pain. He vividly presents a character so deeply complex through his deceptive…flatness. Bernie seems to be the opposite of Noah’s neighbors: Bernie Teide was “only good continually.” So good he’s creepy. And what’s worse, even though he’s creepy, you love him. Black spent some time with Bernie while preparing for the role, and it’s evident in the film. Jack Black knows Bernie Teide. He understands him.
Part of the quirkiness of this movie is the idea of Jack Black, a.k.a., Tenacious D, singing…hymns… with apparent personal conviction. I mean, it is just so funny a concept. The music is fantastic, largely due to the heart Black throws into it with his typical reckless abandon.
Shirley MacLaine just flat proves outright that hypothesis about comedic actors doing drama best. Her Marjorie Nugent is horrible. She *chews her food* in this movie in such an awful hilarious disgusting manner that I wanted to commit a violent felony. Luckily, I was laughing too hard to go through with it. The outlandish demands she saddles Bernie with are so over the top, so absolutely astonishing, that my eyebrow muscles got the workout of their life: every time she made Bernie do some other awful dehumanizing chore, they jumped to dizzying heights.
Matthew McConaughey (who really should change his last name: who can spell that? Really?) will stun you, because he’s not pretty. In fact, he’s a bit slimy looking, and sort of irritating, like a stereo-typical small-town southern prosecuter ought to be. If one didn’t notice his name in the credits, or recognize his charming southern drawl, they’d never realize it was him, which is a testament to his skill as an actor, even though he’s once again playing a southern lawyer. He somehow finds himself in the position of being the antagonist in this story, and to him, and to most rational observers of the law, that makes absolutely no sense. His frustration is palpable, and really funny.
The Big Names in the cast are all superb, and that’s the foundation of the film. But the real gold is the supporting cast, which is made up of actual citizens of Carthage, and a hilarious cameo from Matthew’s mommy. Peppered throughout the film are snippets of interviews with the local townspeople whose honesty has the capacity to leave the viewer incapacitated from laughter. Example:
The film is done in a docu-drama style that only serves to up the funny-factor: the absolute absurdity of the story is shown perfectly through the ironically serious nature one would expect in a Criminal Expose. One realizes this is going to be a weird little movie right from the start: the opening scene takes place in a mortician’s classroom, and Jack Black’s Bernie (a mortician) is thoroughly explaining the intricacies of preparing a corpse for a funeral. It’s squirmy and weird and hilarious.
The film is based on a Texas Monthly article from 1998 by Skip Hollingsworth that captured the imagination of the Lone Star state. Small town life in Texas has a humid misty sort of romance to it, and this tale sort of de-humidified Carthage. The clarified atmosphere left people a bit dizzy. What emerges from the article, and the film, is the bottomless depth of the complexities of humanity: how deeply we all need to be…needed, what lengths folks will go to to achieve a feeling of importance and worth in the eyes of others. There is a weight to this film that sneaks up on the viewer. One finds them self asking, “Really, what’s worse: murder or being an insufferable ass your whole life?” And, the power of the story is this: after watching it, you’re not exactly sure. “Bernie” is a glaring reflection of some of society’s warts and wounds, and even though warts can be funny, they are really ugly too.
Often what appears to be someone’s greatest strength only thinly covers their frailty. This film is the story of Bernie Teide: a beautiful frail terror of a man who finally snapped. According to the film’s credits, he spends a lot of time in prison now doing embroidery. Isn’t that sweet? And, creepy….?