Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Mathew McConaughey
Directed by Richard Linklater
Film maker Richard Linklater is no stranger to odd formats. Here is a man who has managed to remain a true indie voice despite all the praises and adulation that have come his way. While many of his peers have moved onto big budget summer tent poles for a living, Linklater is still content experimenting with format, pattern and style from outside the conventional studio system. He notably brought the ‘single day’ format into vogue with his highly acclaimed Before Sunrise/Sunset series and his earlier works like Slacker , Dazed and Confused etc. He also pushed rotoscoping animation into mainstream with projects like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life.
Now, Linklater takes on the task of bringing a newspaper article to life. And this he achieves to a great extent thanks to the mockumentary style approach cleverly employed. In his latest film, Bernie, Linklater invites us to be witness to a peculiar crime case that took place in the small East Texas town of Carthage.
And a difference he does make. Majorie does open up and finds a wonderful companion in Bernie, taking him on trips and long holidays at fancy destinations. She even begins to entrust her finances to this new found buddy. What starts off as a relationship of convenience to Bernie, however begins to turn into an overbearing one due to the domineering and possessive nature of the lady. Bernie begins to find the joy and positive energy he once had as a thing of the past, and with each strangulating moment he realizes that he needs to find a way out of this messy affair real quick!
What follows is the rather strange unfolding of events that took the town of Carthage by total surprise.
Making this whole quirky tragicomedy work is the portrayal of Bernie by Jack Black. Black is given a rare opportunity with this film and he grabs with both hands. The comedian, reuniting with his ‘School of Rock’ director puts together one of the finest performances of his career, going onto prove that he certainly capable of much more than just a funny voice behind a choppin’ kickin Panda.
Black’s fascinating show is well supported here by his key co-actors. Mathew McConaughey chips in with a cameo of sorts, as a district attorney. The usually shirtless Conaughey does stay in his clothes and in his role this time. And as usual, he saves his best for the court room. Veteran Shirley MacLaine provides the depth to keep her character from falling into the stereotype mold.
Bernie as a narrative is told in chapters, slowly building up his character more from the gossips and testimonies shared by the townsfolk. Linklater has a fine command over his material and also being a Texas man himself, he does bring in the much needed authenticity to the place and the people. This is further supplemented, by using actual Carthage folks to give their version of the story to the audience. This usage of real life people to narrate a real life incident was also something that Soderbergh had intended to do on Moneyball. However the plan was dropped by the studio once Soderbergh left the project. This attribute is obviously the strength and also the weakness of the movie. This technique brings with it several limitations, and that does keep the film from achieving a full cinematic potential. Though it is a careful and complex character study, it still does not go much beyond the surface. We build up his image like building blocks from the various bits and pieces we get. But never do we really understand the man and neither does Linklater pretend to be doing it. In Bernie, we get a man solely through the eyes of the people who knew him or heard about him.
Given the odd quirky format, it eventually boils down as to how much the satirical dark crime comedy does manage to work. One will find it light weight on comparison to, say, a Coen Brother feature (Linklater in fact had always referred to this as his East Texas ‘Fargo’) , but this is one where Linklater has managed to delicately balance the various elements of comedy, crime and drama and provide a wholesome offering, while sitting on the fence and not taking sides.
Sure, the film has its indie feel and slow leisurely pace taking time to get into the groove. Still give it the time for Bernie is a simple tale of a complex crime told in a straight forward no fret manner. Definitely a film which needs to reach a wider audience and a film which should put Jack Black’s career on the right track. Because with Bernie, Black shows that he has what it takes to sing, dazzle and charm his way into the hearts of people, be it young or old. With a heart of gold and a shade of gray, this is a show of Black all the way!