It's hard to reconcile Richard Linklater, the young-turk auteur who gave us 1991’s Gen-X manifesto Slacker, with Richard Linklater, the movie industry vet (Fast Food Nation, The School of Rock, Bad News Bears) who delivers Jack Black's latest: a pleasantly quirky crime comedy called Bernie. The documentary-like, stream-of-consciousness ramble that was Slacker established Linklater's Austin-based indie street cred. That Independent Spirit Award-winning film ends with one of the most underrated anti-art statements of the late 20th century—the director’s restlessly kinetic, nihilistic tossing of a 16mm camera off a cliff.
Not that Bernie represents any sort of sad, corporate sellout on the part of Linklater (unlike, say, director Penelope Spheeris’ journey from punk rock opuses Suburbia and The Decline of Western Civilization to slovenly remakes of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals). It’s just that aside from the inclusion of fellow Austinite Matthew McConaughey (who worked with Linklater on Dazed & Confused and The Newton Boys), Bernie isn’t recognizable as something from Linklater’s résumé.
For starters, Bernie is based on a true crime article from Texas Monthly. Black plays the subject of that article, one Bernie Tiede—a mild-mannered, churchgoing mortician loved by one and all in his tiny East Texas community of Carthage (pop. 6,779). Depending on whom you listen to—his defense lawyer or the prosecution—Bernie was either a calculating lothario who romanced his way into the life of a wealthy, 81-year-old widow or the long-suffering friend and companion of a horrible battle ax.
To give the man the brownie points he deserves, Black conjures up a vivid character here. This isn't the usual braying buffoon he’s overworked of late (Gulliver's Travels, Year One, Tropic Thunder). Bernie is by turns sad, sympathetic, odd, gregarious and mysterious. His love for gospel music and his affinity for Broadway classics give Black the opportunity to open up his pipes (in a non-joking way, for a change). The object of his “affection,” on the other hand—universally hated biddy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine)—is nasty, petty, cruel and murder on the eardrums. MacLaine effortlessly dusts off her sour-tempered widower character from Steel Magnolias. It’s to her credit that the recycling goes nearly unnoticed, but the Oscar-winning actress has little to do here other than yell occasionally in Black’s direction.
There’s probably a fine story to be found in the twisted tale of Bernie and Marjorie, but Linklater just hasn't cracked it. The script is incredibly slim, and the slow-going film stretches what little narrative it’s got to the breaking point. McConaughey moseys on by as a suspicious district attorney fixing his skunk-eye on Bernie. But he's got less to do than MacLaine. That’s a bummer. McConaughey’s character might have been the most interesting one in this story—a small-town lawyer blistered and berated by friends and family for having the brass to actually prosecute poor ol’ Bernie Tiede for his crimes.
To pad things out, Linklater includes lots of talking-head interviews with the actual, real-life Carthage townspeople who knew Bernie and Marjorie back in the day. It’s a potentially interesting idea, mixing fictionalized narrative with documentary reality. Sadly, there isn’t a lot of depth to be found in these Greek-chorus interviews. Without exception, people loved Bernie and hated Marjorie, adding little to our gossipy tale of woe. It’s hard to tell if Linklater is lampooning these local yokels or celebrating their homespun loyalty. Either way, one can’t help but suspect (hope, anyway) there were a few more layers to the real story.
Not here. Linklater lays out Bernie and Marjorie’s relationship as flatly and pedantically as an episode of “Dateline NBC” (minus Chris Hansen’s unctuous narration). There are a lot of questions raised by this story. For starters, there’s the seemingly crucial question: Did Bernie seduce Mrs. Nugent, or was he actually gay? Black plays it close to the vest. Bernie’s passion for musical theater might be a dead giveaway, but the movie demurs at giving us a definitive answer. That seems like both important information and a potentially interesting trait for a film to study. But no. For a movie whose title alone is enough to indicate a specific character study, Bernie doesn't dig very deep.
It’s kind of a shame. This is the kind of film you want to like. Linklater is trying something different here. Black gives his most nuanced performance in years. The script isn’t what you'd call laugh-out-loud funny, but it offers plenty of wry, morbid humor. It’s genial and endearing and original. And surprisingly lacking in anything resembling a point.