Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stranger Than Fact

Richard Linklater is great again? And so is Jack Black? And Matthew McConaughey? It's unbelievable, but it's true. That could be said to apply to their newest film Bernie, which is derived from actual events but goes to great lengths to test the plasticity of the designation "based on a true story."

Based on a 1988 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie tells the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) a mild and ambiguously gay mortician who is beloved by the town of Carthage, Texas for the kindness he shows his clients, both living and dead. This kindness he extends to Marge Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), reputed to be the nastiest old crone in town. They become increasingly close, shopping, traveling, seeing and shows, with Nugent eventually bequeathing the entirety of her estate to Bernie. She also becomes increasingly possessive, to the point that Bernie snaps and shoots her in the back four times, then keeps her body in a freezer while giving away enormous sums of her money to the people of Carthage. When he's caught none of the townspeople can believe he did it, or that he ought to go to jail, and so it falls on District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to see that justice is properly administered.

The story is straightforward enough, but is given all kinds delightful wrinkles and twists. To start with, the tone is mordantly humorous, especially for a true crime story, but also rather sweet. The opening scene, in which Bernie demonstrates the finer points of corpse preparation (the angle of the head should be "neither star-gazing, nor navel-gazing") sets the deliberately and jarringly light-hearted tone for the rest of the movie.The story is told through a mixture of straight scripted narrative and interview footage with the townspeople of Carthage, who are endearingly provincial; an old codger type has some of the funniest lines, describing southern Texas as "where the Tex meets the Mex," and referring to "The People's Republic of Austin." Many of the interview subjects are actors (one of the actors is Matthew McConaughey's mother), though, which adds yet another layer of unreality to the film.

The comic ambiguity extends to its three stars. Jack Black is the film's greatest asset, giving a performance that is uncharacteristically restrained and made all the funnier for it. His Tiede is mannered and precise, right down to the delicate way he walks, and has a beguiling sweetness that makes his decision to kill his sugar momma both the most natural and most unbelievable thing in the world. (All too fittingly, one scene has him playing Harold Hill in a self-directed community production of The Music Man.) It's by far the best performance of his career.

This goes for Matthew McConaughey, too, generally useless as a rom-com leading man but here displaying great comic timing as the clueless DA who ends up being the only person in town able to view the murder with the proper perspective. Shirley MacLaine at first seems like the weak link, only on rare occasions becoming the Bitch Out of Hell that the townspeople make Marge Nugent out to be, but one wonders if this isn't intentional. The Carthaginians are gossip hounds through and through, and given how much the film is elsewhere forcing us to question what is or isn't true, it's entirely possible that the heavy emphasis on Nugent's happiness when she's with Tiede isn't deliberately chafing against her reputation.

Bernie came from nowhere and has ended up one of my favorite flicks that I've seen in awhile. It is, moreover, one of the most quotable. The last time I can remember reciting lines  to my friends afterwards was Burn After Reading, almost four years ago. Bernie has slipped under the radar thus far--it's made only $2.5 million and is likely only going to play in indie theaters--but I can easily see it finding its audience on DVD. But why wait? It's a great group movie, believe you me.

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