As you may have noticed, around these parts we often like to write retrospectives on the milestones of big movies, revisiting the films, examining their cultural impact, marveling at how long it’s been, and blah blah blah. So when someone pointed out that ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ was going to be 25 years old on July 5th, I thought, sure, I’ll write that. It was a film I sort of remembered from childhood and haven’t watched since, and it’s always interesting to revisit a mainstream comedy from decades past. The good ones tend to have a timeless quality, and the ones that don’t hold up are just as interesting as cultural artifacts, these sort of comedy time capsules. And like ‘Big’ (1988), ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ (1989) has that oddly anachronistic depiction of the New York City corporate working world of the late 1980s – which mostly involved a lot of smoking indoors and people making fun of you for working with computers, I gather. The working world was apparently so buttoned up and beige that everything else had to be a big-haired bedazzled jazzercise nightmare to compensate. Or maybe they just had to make it look that way as an excuse for only wanting to party. Just workin’ for the weekend, brah! (*guitar shred*)
In any case, you know how these pieces usually go – a mixture of wistful appreciation, a careful notation of charming anachronisms (you couldn’t say that anymore!), and we all get our fill of nostalgia for the day (remember pogs?! remember your youth!?).
Only, rewatching ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ led me to a bigger question: Why does anyone remember this powerfully, powerfully mediocre movie? It feels a lot more like 1989’s ‘Due Date,’ or ‘Identity Thief.’ Remember those movies? No, you don’t, and rightly so. Yet 25 years later, ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ has dance moves named after it!
You know the set up: two guys, played by Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman, go to an awesome party at their boss’s house in the Hamptons (actually the fictional Hampton Island in the movie) over Labor Day. Only when they get there, the boss is dead, and rather than call the cops, they pretend he’s still alive so they can KEEP PARTYIN’! (*puts on Hawaiian shirt, wears lamp shade on head*)
One thing I do love and miss about the 80s was that partying was seen as the ultimate goal of existence. Don’t need nooooothin, but a gooooood time... And how can I resist, as they say (have fun having that in your head all day). But do you realize that it takes ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ a full 45 minutes of screen time to set this plot that we already know from the poster into motion? People seemed to have a low tolerance for any premise that didn’t have an ancient curse or shrinking ray or body swap in the 1980s, but at least in ‘Big’ they get the genie in and out in the first 10 minutes. Yadda yadda yadda okay Tom Hanks acts like a little kid now. THAT’S how a high concept premise is supposed to go. ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ makes you wait HALF THE MOVIE for absolutely the only thing remotely interesting about it.
Before that, it’s nothing but terrible ADR, caricatures from cereal commercials, and two of the most uncompelling leads in blockbuster history. Imagine ‘Stripes’ if they hadn’t joined the army until the third act. Actually, that’s a bad comparison. Where ‘Stripes’ had Bill Murray, ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ had… Jonathan Silverman. Andrew McCarthy was the bigger star at the time, and that holds true even now, as he’s basically the only person in the cast who has other titles before “perhaps best known for his role in ‘Weekend at Bernie’s'” on his Wikipedia page. One of which was ‘Mannequin,’ two years earlier. Say what you will, the man was great at playing second fiddle to a corpse. As a side note, if you were great at playing comatose or you were a comedic African-American little person in the 1980s, you probably thought you were going to ride that gravy train until the wheels fell off. How many aspiring Willises and Websters and McCarthies never got their shot? Sad.
Anyway, Silverman plays “uptight guy” and McCarthy plays “loosen up, bro!” for 45 goddamned minutes before anything happens. The film opens with a shot of kids playing in a fire hydrant so that you know that it’s set in New York in the summer time, a shot used so often before and since that I’m convinced the hydrant industry must’ve been paying for placement. But okay, it was ’89, probably not as hack back then.
Other than that, all that really happens is that we learn Silverman and McCarthy apparently have a job reading dot matrix printouts, and get introduced to Silverman’s love interest, a summer intern played bralessly (I do love that about 80s movies) by Catherine Mary Stewart, who was 30 years old at the time. The twin 80s practices of condoning banging the college intern and casting 30-year-olds to play college students found a weird sort of synergy here. Meanwhile, Porsche-driving ladies man Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser) is busy being an alpha playboy at probably the last moment in time when you could still pull that off while rocking a Freddie Mercury ‘stache (don’t worry, it’s coming back).
At a Manhattan restaurant, we meet Bernie’s mobster associates, the main one of whom is named “Vito,” because like I said, this movie is basically a Chex Mix commercial. The mob guys are eventually going to kill Bernie, because he’s been shackin’ up with the main mob guy’s girlfriend, who is basically Fran Drescher from ‘The Nanny,’ a stock character I get down on my knees every night to thank Jesus no longer shows up much in popular culture. We know this because she keeps trying to tickle Bernie’s balls under the table with her foot. Can you imagine if the guy who invented the surreptitious dinner party jack-off scene was getting royalties? Dude would be a millionaire. Anyway, the mob girl keeps calling him “Boinie,” shouting like she’s projecting to the top row, and the mob assassin wears a cravat and a boating hat on the way to Hampton Island because this entire movie is like a middling episode of ‘Two and a Half Men.’
In the first 45 minutes of the movie, the most memorable thing that happens is this lady’s sunglasses:
Finally, after many long stretches of these two milquetoasts yammering at each other, we get to the meat of this particular story: these guys having to pretend Bernie is alive so they can party at his house and hang out with hot babes. One of whom is Eloise Broady, the Playboy Playmate for April 1988, who walks up in a tiny thong bikini with the bottoms pulled halfway up her ribcage, 80s/early 90s-style, kitted out with giant wrist bangles and Reebok pumps (!!!), bouncing as she walks so that her boobs sproing up and down in an exaggerated fashion.
I mention the boobs because they’re just about all this movie has to recommend it so far.
Okay, so all the Hampton Islandites show up at Bernie’s huge house, this post-modern nightmare that looks like the architectural equivalent of Eddie Van Halen’s signature guitar (lines goin’ every which way because RADICAL!). The superficial townies take over Bernie’s place before the two main dudes can even hide the body. Rather than be horrified by the corpse like the boys expect, no one notices, and just carries on like before. There’s a thimble full of comedy in that and a Playboy cartoon’s worth of social commentary, which is fine until you realize that this is going to have to sustain the other 45 minutes of movie. You know the whole no-one-notices-the-dead-guy-is-dead joke is wearing a little thin when the Boinie chick (pronouncing his name completely differently now, probably because the actress was from Florida in real life) shows back up to have sex with Bernie’s corpse, and then comes downstairs smoking a cigarette afterwards like it was the best sex she ever had. And not even so much as makes a rigor mortis joke, because clearly no one making this movie really gave that much of a shit.
If you try to think of one ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’ scene without rewatching it, the one you probably remember is Bernie being dragged behind a speed boat, skipping along in the water and clanging into a series of channel markers. To be fair to our stupid memories, it is easily the best moment in the film, and the closest I came to laughing during it. It’s hard to deny the pure slapstick of it, and the fact that it absolves you of your guilt over it because he’s dead, but still feels a little wicked because of corpse abuse. The corpse abuse jokes – stapling the wig to Bernie’s head, throwing him off a deck, running him into a channel marker – are great. That’s hard slapstick, and everyone loves hard slapstick,. I can still watch the Three Stooges or Buster Keaton and laugh my dick off. The corpse abuse is much funnier than the everyone-thinks-he’s-still-alive jokes, which is more like the kind of smile/groan comedy you find in the Sunday funnies, though the filmmakers don’t seem to have realized this.
The part of the boat scene you don’t remember is the five tedious minutes leading up to it, of these two guys being THE WORST BOAT DRIVERS IN THE WORLD. They’d jumped in Bernie’s speedboat to speed back to New York, with Silverman asking “Do you know how to drive a boat?” to which McCarthy responds, “Are you kiddin’? I was born on a boat!” har har.
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All leading to a scene in which McCarthy 1. doesn’t remember to untie the boat, 2. runs into a docked boat, 3. throws an anchor at a dock, 4. runs into another boat (in the open water this time), and 5. almost runs into an even bigger boat. If you thought there was a limit to the number of times a screenwriter could reuse the “oh crap I didn’t see that house-sized thing until it was right next to me!” joke, that limit is apparently more than three. It’s hard to laugh at any characters this inept and stupid if they aren’t getting hit with things.
The scene is emblematic of a movie that never met a half-assed joke premise it couldn’t wildly overdo. It’s a high concept. I get it, it doesn’t need to be believable. But it could at least throw in some token nods to believability – a rigor mortis reference here, a character not costumed like a Mexican variety show there – you know, jokes based on things that might actually happen, even ensconced in this world of high concept silliness. Every time there’s an opportunity to inject a recognizable situation or human emotion, the screenwriter seems to just snort another line shouting “OKAY, NOW WHAT IF THE CORPSE BONED A CHICK!”
Okay, so it’s not a great movie. At best it’s a 90-minute Garfield comic strip (“here we go again, lol!”). Nonetheless, it all managed to get boiled down into a memorable trailer, and a poster where concept and visual were integrated. You see it once and you get it, instantly, like the Ghostbusters logo.
Also, Terry Kiser did make a great chilled out party corpse.
Now, I didn’t bring up this old movie just so I could rip on it. I bring it up because I too remembered it in a fond sort of way. This despite the fact that it’s mostly a bland piece of shit, and I have to imagine always was (50% on RottenTomatoes and Ebert’s one star review seem to confirm). Do we remember the movie, or just the trailer and the poster? I think the advertising had managed to count more than the merit of the actual product in my brain and I hadn’t even noticed. The fact that we remember movies like this at all reminds me of that scene in ‘Demolition Man’ (which was way more prescient about the future than people gave it credit for) where the characters turn on the radio and start singing along to “oldies,” which are actually just commercial jingles. The more we keep recycling shit from our childhoods – the reboots, the remakes, the 20-years-past-due sequels (a conversation Weekend At Bernie’s has been a part of) – solely because we remember them, the more I imagine that scene becoming reality, a future of beloved commercial jingles for products no one remembers anymore.