Do you remember when Jack Black was the next big thing? When he was seen as the heir apparent of leading comedy actors? Well, yes, it’s been awhile, but let’s review for context’s sake, shall we?
Black first made some noise stealing scenes in “High Fidelity” and on his HBO series “Tenacious D,” but after stumbling in films such as “Shallow Hal” and “Saving Silverman” he finally broke through to mass adoration in the critical and audience pleasing “The School of Rock.” That Richard Linklater film was the first time Black was able to combine his natural charisma, actual acting talents and, of course, ability to rock into one signature performance. He came close to duplicating that achievement in the 2006 hit comedy “Nacho Libre” and was impressive later that year in the straight drama “Margot at the Wedding.” He even took chances with Michel Gondry’s misfire “Be Kind Rewind” and Nancy Meyer’s uneven romantic comedy “The Holiday” and his star continued to rise. It all seemed to peak in a summer of 2008 double bill where he supplied the voice of Po in “Kung Fu Panda” (at the time considered DreamWorks Animation’s best film ever) and as the drug addict actor Jeff Portnoy in Ben Stiller’s contemporary classic “Tropic Thunder.” The three year since, however, have not been as kind.
In between touring with Tenacious D partner Kyle Glass, Black appeared in the abysmal “Year One” and, just this past Christmas, in the painful family film “Gulliver’s Travels.” You can also argue domestic audiences have tired of Black’s shtick considering the disappointing box office of “Kung Fu Panda” (which somehow managed better overall reviews than its predecessor). Enter Linklater to Black’s rescue once more with the new comedy, “Bernie,” which made its world premiere as the opening night film of the 2011 LA Film Festival. And, on a positive note, the “Before Sunrise” filmmaker somehow pulls out one of the best performances of Black’s career.
“Bernie” is based on the true story of Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede, a former Carthage, Texas assistant funeral home director who confessed to killing Marjorie Nugent, a rich 81-year-old widow, in 1996. The twist in the story, however, is that a good number of the townspeople in Carthage didn’t want Bernie to be prosecuted or receive jail time for the murder. By all accounts, Bernie was amazingly kind, effeminate, smart, a talented singer and a community leader who would give you the shirt off his back if he could. He just didn’t seem like the kind of man who could act in such cold blood. It’s worth noting, he also seemed to be attracted to women much older than himself (he’s in his late 30’s when the film takes place) which explains his relationship with the eighty something Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).
Even though Marjorie was universally reveled in Carthage with few friends and strained relations with her relatives (her son and granddaughter tried to sue her for her money), it seems Bernie saw something in the moody broad and broke down her protective wall. Over a six year period they went from casual friends to an extremely close and then toxic relationship. After a few happy-go-lucky years, the “crazy” Marjorie returned and used her money to trap Bernie into staying with her even when the incredibly patient mortician is frantically trying to keep up his community ties (or so the film wants you to believe). Of course, Bernie benefits from being with Marjorie (although a sexual relationship is only insinuated by the townspeople) as she gives him thousands of dollars that he uses to buy things for other people in town, not himself. It all finally comes to a head with unintended tragic consequences, but Bernie, who had been given power of attorney over Marjorie’s estate, doesn’t take the money and run. Instead, he continues to shell it out to the citizens of Carthage while trying to cover up Marjorie’s disappearance. That is until he’s caught and the county D.A. Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey as the voice of sanity) goes against the will of his constituents for a first degree murder charge. Sounds like perfect black comedy fodder, no? Well, certainly in theory.
Linklater miscalculation is his decision to intercut the story with documentary style interviews featuring residents of Carthage some of whom are played by professional actors and others who still reside in the town and knew both Bernie and Marjorie. Some of these moments are genuinely funny (mostly from the blunt real Carthage residents), but they also severely hamper the pace of the film and remove a lot of the dramatic momentum being sold by Black, MacLaine, McConaughey and others in traditional scenes. And while the subject matter is no doubt fascinating it’s not as funny as Linklater wants it to be providing more chuckles than true laughs. That means what works in the film is mostly due to the cast whose performances are easy to recommend.
Black is superb in making you believe someone like Bernie could really exist and while accenting his funny characteristics also portraying him as three-dimensional character. It’s a turn that in some ways similar to Jim Carrey’s unconventional and great work in “I Love you Phillip Morris.” It’s broad, but grounded at the same time and it’s a character we’ve never really seen Black attempt before. He’s simply great.
As Marjorie, MacLaine is inches from her over the top pissy portrayals in flicks such as “Steel Magnolias,” “Terms of Endearment” and, well, everything she’s done since about 1980, but she surprisingly dials it back this time around. It’s honestly some of her best work in quite awhile. McConaughey is fine in a Texas-breed role he’s spot on for and which doesn’t have the character arc his co-stars are afforded.
Still searching for distribution, “Bernie” feels like a film companies such as Roadside Attractions or FilmDistrict could sell to older audiences on a grass roots level. It’s no disrespect to the picture, but Bernie” could be a film that generates strong word of mouth playing in retirement communities for weeks on end. Beyond that, it’s sad to say, but “Bernie” may a film you eventually discover on Netflix or Cable.
Look for more reports and reviews from the 2011 LA Film Festival over the next 10 days on HitFix.
For year round entertainment commentary, follow Gregory Ellwood on twitter @HitFixGregory.