Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Ol' Boy: BERNIE

Like Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a based-on-a-true-story film that takes its stranger-than-fiction facts and plays them as dark, character-driven comedy. Also like Soderbergh, Linklater is a director who debuted in the late-80’s in independent film and has spent his career dabbling in different genres. What makes his work so strong and distinctive across genres is not his virtuoso stylistic touches, but his strong, steady focus on characters and a keen eye for the ways in which people relate to one another. From early successes like Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused, to more experimental works like Waking Life, to big studio hits like School of Rock, he’s a director with a sharp sense of interpersonal dynamics and an ability to fit his shaggy observational tone into highly entertaining packages.

Bernie reteams Linklater with his School of Rock star Jack Black. That film is a career highlight for the both of them, a Hollywood comedy in which they embrace a formula – goofball grows up by unwittingly learning from time spent with little kids – into which they can inject a welcome authenticity and emotion behind the laughs. Though Bernie has plenty of laughs, the two of them are up to something much trickier, a dance of tones that is often very funny, but much more complicated and darker. Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director in the small Texas town of Carthage. He has a natural ease in his chosen profession. He’s a master at preparing the bodies, guiding bereaving families through funeral options (or just helping older couples planning ahead, pick out just the right casket), and even steps in to read scriptures or sing a song when necessary. He does this for the local Methodist church as well, singing his heart out to all the great old hymns to much adulation from the congregation.

What earns Bernie the respect and love of the townspeople is his incredible generosity. He’s a giver, not a taker, quick to lend a hand or to drop by unannounced with tokens of appreciation or care packages. He’s especially good with the weeping widows of the town, bringing them baked goods or baskets of fancy soaps, dropping by to make sure they’re doing fine in their trying time. He’s a real people person who seems perfectly comfortable in his own skin. Some wonder about the man who seems uninterested in “normal” things. He’s a source of much speculation, but it’s all so innocuous to the townsfolk. Why, he’s Bernie! Everybody loves Bernie! And it’s easy to see why. Black could easily have played the man as a bundle of comic tics, but he really digs deep and makes Bernie a fully believable eccentric. It’s a fantastic performance. Black seems to walk differently, carries his weight in a ramrod-straight posture, and puts on an accent that can only be described as a lisping Texan drawl, but he comes across as a man so genuinely nice and even-keel that you’re surprised when little flashes of annoyance and despair crack through.

Bernie’s so sweet and caring, and it all seems so honestly and truly genuine, that it invites much affection reciprocated back at him. Still, beloved as he is, it’s very much a surprise when the meanest lady in town (Shirley MacLaine), lonely and bitter and, to the locals, a legendarily ornery creature, lets him dote on her after her husband’s passing. She’s filthy rich and quickly lets Bernie into her life as something of a surrogate son and servant to help her spend her money and pass the time in her remaining years. They take vacations together, attend local plays and concerts, and marinate in high culture. Soon, though, she has him waiting on her every whim, doing her laundry, giving her rides, sorting her pills, and even clipping her toenails. But Bernie’s such a nice guy he won’t tell her no, even when she gets increasingly jealous of time he spends away from her. Why, he can’t even focus on his lead role in the local civic theater’s upcoming production of The Music Man. But they seem to enjoy each other’s company. “No one’s been this nice to me in fifty years,” the old woman says in a poignant moment that reveals some of the deep pain behind her outward nastiness.

I dare not spoil where their increasingly co-dependent relationship spirals down to. Needless to say, the community is increasingly curious about just what brings and holds together the nicest man and the meanest woman they know. Linklater tells the story as a flurry of gossip through which the real story peeks through by filming townspeople, both actors (like a surprisingly subtle and funny Matthew McConaughey as a lawyer who breaks through the town’s innocuous curiosity with his aggressive skepticism) and actual Carthage, Texas locals, talking to the camera in documentary-style talking-head interviews about their town in general and Bernie in particular. He’s a showy character, but he doesn’t seem to be faking it. The townspeople have a lot of theories, and lots of convictions, about who Bernie is and what he did or did not do to that mean woman, but no one can say for sure what went on in Bernie’s mind. In that way, it becomes a film about storytelling and about the interpretation of facts that allows it to transcend a mere docudrama and become something stranger, funnier and, funnily enough, sadder. In this film, fiction (of the film and of the real-life townspeople’s speculations) and nonfiction (both the true story and the real people interspersed with the actors) sit side-by-side, inescapably intertwined.

It’s such a great small-town portrait, a film about a town that picks-a-little talks-a-little like Meredith Wilson’s small-town Iowa, always chattering about this and that and who’s doing what. It’s a place where assumptions become pretty hard to shake. The people have such a fierce protection of those who are genuinely liked and a sharp condemnation of those who aren’t, that it’s easy to see how interpretations of things as simple as fact get all twisted about. This is a film about American eccentrics that allows for the beauty of local color and the joys of colloquial aphorisms and thick regional accents. There’s relaxed, nonjudgmental appreciation of the eccentric in all of its characters, both real and those who are real but played by actors.

It’s a film that’s laughing with its characters and ready to turn quickly into effective pathos when the emotions run raw. Like in the writings Sherwood Anderson or Garrison Keillor, there’s a great sense of place and the way communities interact to embrace or reject the collection of wonderful characters that inhabit and odd incidents that occur within its boundaries. This is a film about the stories that townsfolk tell about themselves and about their town, but most importantly it’s about Bernie. He’s such a fascinating character; it’s easy to wonder to what extent he’s in denial about the relationship he has found himself in. Black plays his complexities expertly. The writing in this film from Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth is so sharply funny and darkly moving that it can’t be written off as mere condescension or poking fun at real people and real events. It’s a complexly clever and moving film about the way we draw assumptions about people and how hard those assumptions can be to shake. Why, at the end of the film, one local woman insists, “Jesus himself couldn’t change [her] mind about Bernie.”

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