Jack Black easily gives the best performance of his career so far in the quirky true crime story ‘Bernie’. Writer/director Richard Linklater has made a quirky comedy in the vein of the Coen Brothers (think a combination of ‘Fargo’ and ‘Burn After Reading’), though still with his trademarks on hand. The result is an incredibly entertaining and offbeat tale, a film that I actually feel may be one of Linklater’s 5 best to date. Many of his top notch flicks have taken place in small Texas towns (‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘Slacker’, to name 2), and this movie is no exception. All of Linklater’s touches are ones that add to the film’s effectiveness, but his best decision was working again with Black. He gets a terrific performance out of him, and it’s the glue that holds this project together (alongside strong supporting turns from Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey) and elevates it from a very nice little flick to something memorable. Few actors have turned in the quality of work so far in 2012 that Black gives us here. He disappears into the title role and everything just flows from there. The end result is not just one of the most surprisingly fun and effective indies of the year to date, but one of the year’s best so far as well.
Bernie Tiede (Black) is one of the most popular and well liked residents in the small town of Carthage, Texas, starting pretty much as soon as he arrives to take a job at the local Funeral Home. An Assistant Funeral Director by trade, Bernie just seems to know how to properly take care of not just the dearly departed, but the family of the deceased as well. This is especially the case with Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), a new widow and one of the town’s least liked residents. Marjorie happens to also be incredibly wealthy, and when Bernie and her become social companions it raises all sorts of talk throughout the town (especially considering some feel that Bernie is gay). Either Bernie is a saint or he’s got something up his sleeve. The District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) falls into the latter category, even though he’s in the minority. When events lead Bernie to shoot Marjorie in the back 4 times, Danny Buck thinks it’s an open and shut case, but something bizarre happens. The town of Carthage completely sides with Bernie and seems willing to do anything for his freedom. He’s clearly guilty, but is a conviction impossible?
I’m shocked to even be saying this, considering he usually has the potential to get on one’s nerves, but Jack Black deserves some serious Best Actor consideration by the Academy for his acting here in ‘Bernie’. He absolutely owns this role, and I could not imagine anyone else playing Bernie for one second while watching this film. It’s a perfect union of actor and character, made even more stunning by the fact that it’s nothing like anything else you’ve ever seen Black do. Yes, his background with the band Tenacious D makes it easy for him to pull off the singing in the film, but he’s used to doing rock songs, not gospel ones. Yet somehow Black owns the screen no matter what he’s doing. It’s a startlingly good performance. I doubt Oscar will pay attention here, but they should. Shirley MacLaine doesn’t act that much anymore, but her excellent supporting turn here suggests that she should. She’s playing a tough character, overtly an evil old lady, but one with a hidden loneliness that she needs to subtly convey. It couldn’t have been easy, but she pulls it off quite well. As for Matthew McConaughey, this is a smaller part than he normally takes on, but he’s comfortable with Linklater like Black is, so there’s no issue there and he turns in fine work as the crusader for justice. He’s ostensibly the villain in the film, but you completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and probably would be doing the same if you were in his shoes. The rest of the cast mostly just inhabit the background/contribute as documentary talking heads, but the strength of this trio is one to reckon with, especially the work here of Jack Black.
Richard Linklater made an interesting decision to film about half of the film like a documentary. The narrative parts are almost dramatic recreations, and despite the potential for failure, it actually adds an interesting layer to the movie. He’s having a lot of fun here, both as director and screenwriter (the script was co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, and based on his news article), and it shows. He’s also suggesting a lot without ever going over the top. In some ways, this is a bit of a film noir, though it’s also a great character study and comedy in its own right. It certainly feels like the Coens inspired this, though I’d argue that ‘Bernie’ is better than some of their lesser works. It’s a credit to Linklater that he was able to pull it all together.
‘Bernie’ may not be one of the most ambitious films of the year, but it’s very funny and features awards worthy work from Jack Black, which in and of itself should be enough to see it. Add to that some nice and unique filmmaking from popular filmmaker Richard Linklater, and it’s almost a no brainer. I can recommend this movie with no reservations, and I hope that everyone seeks it out. It’s certainly worth your time!
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