Linklater, while not quite worthy of household recognition, is essentially the Otto Graham of Mumblecore cinema and to a lesser extent, the indie film movement from the early nineties. In such a sense, Linklater is as condemnable (if not more so) as Quentin Tarantino for his legions of film school imitators who have far less to offer the world than their silver screen superstars. As he has for the last twenty years, Linklater’s newest movie can only knock at the door of mainstream cinema—which is a sad limitation given the quiet brilliance of “Bernie.”
While the movie is billed as a “true story,” I’m going to ignore the “true story” because sometimes a movie can be bigger than the facts.
Bernie Tiede (played by the periodically impressive Jack Black) is a funeral home director who achieves unrivalled popularity in the small town of Carthage, Texas—partially thanks to his seemingly endless loyalty to the quintessential craggy old bat: Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).
Bernie has the perfect handshake, a warm smile, charming talents and, perhaps most importantly, gives away money as if it isn’t the ultimate collection in life. Generosity breeds popularity. Can friends be bought? It would seem that to not buy friends would be a rejection of the American Dream. That the money is rarely Bernie’s at all is a point nearly all townspeople are willing to overlook.
In the first of many points articulated by characters, albeit with a salt-of-the-earth draw, the greater good is more than a defense, it’s a virtue. For nearly the entire film, Bernie is just as close to receiving the Key to the City as he is to getting jail time. Similarly, when people finally become concerned about the condition of little old Nugent, it is not without their own financial interests at stake. Their condemnation of Bernie reeks of hypocrisy as it becomes clear that nobody (friends, family, the D.A., etc.) is seeking “good” for its own sake but rather all pursue self-advancement and would swear on the Holy Bible that any benefits they receive are only coincidently correlated to what “is right.”
Linklater’s direction proves extraordinarily deft in this regard. With the quasi-documentary style popularized in network television, most characters are given explicit opportunities to defend their views yet seem, at the very least, overwhelmingly guilty by association.
How a community—that would likely consider John Boehner a liberal—came to cherish a gay, big city, theater-loving, funeral director is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
In shortest terms, it’s easy to hate the unknown and hard to hate what you understand. The townspeople purposefully overlooked Bernie’s obvious homosexuality because he did not confirm their expectation that all “the gays” do is march in parades, slap asses, mock the Bible, disregard children and consort with the President—you know, things meant to be left to professional athletes. Instead, Bernie was a kind, generous and fun person; so gentle euphemisms and curious whispers replaced what were almost certainly cries of immortality and filth only one election prior. Basically, Bernie was just everybody’s “gay best friend”—a burgeoning stereotype that only feels like a slight improvement from the prostitution/AIDS stereotype flamed by “Midnight Cowboy” and others.
More than anything, Bernie’s earnest desire to be liked stops him from taking the role of a conman fleecing little old ladies and gullible townsfolk. Lyle Lanley, he is not and Jack Black makes sure of it when the script likely had such wiggle room. Black’s performance of the giddy/troubled newcomer is commanding in the most gentle sense. He doesn’t struggle to read, reconnect with a long lost daughter or give thunderous monologues, but rather sits back and smiles while listening and we love him all the more for it.
More than just a comedy, “Bernie” is a refreshing observation on reality and not afraid to play out scenes with more drama, animation or tension than a more genre-comedy would permit. Characters are neither condemned nor applauded; each given a fair, and firm, shake. The movie strives for a moral equilibrium, and while not attained, the attempt is plenty entertaining and worthy of occupying far more movie theaters than “Bernie” will likely reach.