Bernie Review

I’ve always found real life to be stranger than fiction.

And more compelling.

It’s those mundane, little details about ordinary life that really get to me; seemingly ridiculous on the surface, yet somehow too normal and convincing for someone to have dreamt this all up.

Judging by Richard Linklater’s best work in slacker classic Dazed And Confused and his Before Sunrise, Before Sunset collaborations, I’m not the only fan of real life.

Linklater’s latest feature takes inspiration from the true story of one Bernhardt Tiede, a respected and well liked resident of an East Texan town called Carthage.

Only Bernie is much more than this. As Assistant Director of the local funeral home, Bernie comforts his community in their greatest moments of need and thinks nothing of going the extra mile to show how much he cares for his grief stricken customers.

In fact, Bernie is an upstanding member of his community and genuinely loved by all. Something Marjorie Nugent could never lay claim to in her home town of Carthage.

As the co-owner of the only local loan company in town, Marjorie takes pleasure in turning down applications and looking down her nose at the rest of the town’s with her holier than thou antics.

When Marjorie’s husband dies, Bernie not only delivers the funeral but knowing that she has alienated everyone else from her life – even her family – takes it upon himself to be there for her.

Initially as cold to him as everyone else who crosses her path, Marjorie soon warms to Bernie’s gentle charm and constant attention.

It isn’t long before this odd couple have embarked upon a quasi relationship with each other, providing companionship rather than anything more, ahem, biblical.

But as sweet as Bernie appears, what are his true motives for getting involved with the bitterest yet richest woman in Carthage?

Bernie is an oft dark comedy about the real life tale of Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent.

No doubt Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, who co wrote the script, indulged their creative licence to make certain scenes funnier than real life usually permits. But by using real inhabitants from Carthage as talking heads and even in supporting roles throughout the film, they make sure to ground Bernie in reality.

Of course, the lead roles go to established actors; with Jack Black reuniting with Linklater and reining in his comedic flair as the curiously benevolent Bernhardt Tiede.

As with most principal’s, humour is largely sacrificed to keep Tiede’s narrative arc intact. But when his real life, dramatic tendencies call for it, Black’s larger than life presence enables him to portray these moments with gay abandon.

Shirley MacLaine provides subtle comic relief as the overly possessive and paranoid Marjorie Nugent, the object Bernie’s sympathy and affection, yet it’s another familiar acquaintance of Linklater’s who steals the show.

As Danny Buck Davidson, Carthage County’s District Attorney, Matthew McConaughey is never short of a hilarious soundbite or two for the swarm of usually self assembled media outlets he surrounds himself with.

Having lost himself in a maelstrom of distinctly mediocre romcom’s that have become de rigueur for a McConaughey film, it’s refreshing to see him show off his effortless southern charm and comedy timing sans the generic romantic narrative.

As with most films based on reality, you can’t help but wander just what is fact and what is fiction in Bernie?

On thing’s for sure though, it certainly is a lot more compelling than most of the hollywood fiction cluttering up modern cinema.

Jonathan Campbell

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November 2011
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