Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Undertaking for granted?: "Bernie"

Hmmmm .... we're going to have to rethink "Shallow Hal" being the apex of Jack Black's acting career ...

So I had never heard of this movie before my pal and fervent cinephile Louie insisted I see it. I figured that would happen on video given the dearth of opportunities I have to visit Ye Olde Moviehouse. But lo, the missus one day said we should go see a movie, and this was one of the few that appealed to both of us. Good thing, too, because it was quite the trip. And a true story, to boot.

JB plays Bernie Tiede, a curious little mortician in a small Texas town. Right from the get-go we see he has a knack with the customers ... and just about everyone. Not in a con man kind of way. No, not at all. But with a non-threatening, sweet-if-odd demeanor. He just seems to believe in what he's doing, be it the funeral business or being a good citizen. We not only see this for ourselves but get the full commentary for Bernie's neighbors, speaking directly to the camera in between scenes.

Bernie's amiability eventually makes him the only person who connects with a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine), whose husband everyone seemed to love but who herself left something to be desired in the personality department. She takes a quiet liking to Bernie, though, and before long he's happy to continue supporting her after her husband's passing, while she supports him with her pile of cash.

Alas, this odd relationship can't last, and I'm not spoiling anything by saying the widow becomes too much to handle, and Bernie -- still nice as can be -- sort of accidentally kills her. That would seem to end the relationship, but the second part of the movie follows Bernie carrying on as if she were alive. That might seem difficult, but it's not as if anyone was missing this woman. And again, they all love Bernie. Why would he lie?

One person isn't convinced: lawyer Matthew "Allright, Allright, Allright" McConaughey. He manages to keep his shirt on but pursues Bernie. Since the real-life Bernie Tiede is still in jail, you can guess how this ends. But the fun in all this is the journey, and it's a good one.

MacLaine and McConaughey are both solid -- the former a real pent-up b!tch, the latter sporting some cartoonish eyeglasses. But Black is just shy of transcendent. Yes, as a comedian who has pulled out all sorts of personas in the past decade, this shouldn't be a stretch. But as amusing as his Bernie is, he isn't laugh-out-loud or one-dimensional. Black actually brings a little subtlety to the role and holds tight when things certainly could get zany. Or did you not notice the part about him covering up his sugar mommy's death?

Some credit for this may go to Richard Linklater. Yeah, that guy! Just as I hadn't heard of this movie, I didn't know Mr. Slacker was the director. And while I won't say "This changes everything," I'm definitely one of those who gives Ricky L. the benefit of the doubt. Sure, he may have remade "Bad News Bears," and I thought "Waking Life" was ... difficult. But as one reviewer noted, he really makes a lot of different kinds of movies, and that keeps you guessing.

With the documentary-style comments from citizens, the Texas locale and the subtle silliness, this definitely is in Linklater's wheelhouse, and between his steady hand and Black's amazing performance, "Bernie" not only works but satisfies. You know, as much as the tale of a maybe-gay undertaker murdering a mean widow to the non-chagrin of the local citizenry can ...