|'a miscellany of movie-making methods which don’t sit particularly well together'|
Amongst the many problems with Bernie, perhaps most prominent of all is that from start to finish director Richard Linklater feels as though he just doesn’t know what film he wants to make. Billed as a darkly black comedy, whilst also based on the real life story of funeral director Bernie Tiede and his relationship with wealthy octogenarian Marjorie Nugent, Linklater’s film consistently fails to impress either as either a shaggy dog or stranger-than-fiction story.
Central to Bernie’s success or failure is Jack Black’s performance in the title role. Black is admittedly much more palatable here than when in his default up-to-eleven setting, showing he is pleasingly able to craft a character at the opposite end of the scale. Black’s performance, however surprising, is far from perfect; the actor never makes Bernie Tiede anything more than a curiosity, a mish mash of lightly comedic quirks and nuances. Bernie also fails to develop as a character as the film progresses, being exactly the same at the end as he was when introduced at the start. Whilst this might well be true to the real life Bernie Tiede, here it sooner or later makes for fairly repetitious viewing. Black’s vocal performance, featured at many points throughout, also serves as an irritating distraction more than anything else due to the actor singing in his own voice, which is at odds with the soft, prim Texan tone he adopts when speaking throughout the film.
Black’s main support comes from Shirley MacLaine’s Marjorie throughout the first half of the film, before District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) picks things up in the second part. MacLaine is adequate but never memorable, which is a shame considering the wealth of potential in her character. It’s McConaughey however who thankfully delivers the film’s most impressive turn, bringing Bernie to life whenever he’s on screen and making you wish he’d been given a lot more screen time before the halfway point.
Stylistically, Linklater’s film is hard to pin down, being as it is a miscellany of movie-making methods which don’t sit particularly well together. At times, Bernie feels like a mockumentary, but when you factor in that a great many of the talking heads featured are actual townsfolk from Carthage, Texas - where the movie is set and the real Bernie and Marjorie lived - that notion becomes very uncomfortable indeed. As reportage of a real life story, Bernie again feels unsatisfactory in what it delivers, especially when you start to consider how crassly one-sided the presentation of real events potentially is. As a black comedy, Bernie perhaps falls shortest of the mark: a small handful of moments aside, the humour just isn’t as present or as successful as it needs to be to make this work.
It feels in the end like Linklater lays too much of his film’s success on one unlikely event and the fallout from it, but in doing so throws away almost half of the running time on labouring the point that Bernie is an unusual, charismatic and inherently sad character. The fact that the director drags this out over the entire first half of the film knocks any momentum out of Bernie and makes his title character tiresome before anything really interesting actually happens to him. The final third of the film - focused upon the impact Bernie had on the Carthage community, to the point of many of its residents becoming virtually hypnotised by his warmhearted nature - feels like the story Linklater really wanted to tell, and it ends up being Bernie’s strongest section; but to get there Linklater drags us through over an hour of set-up where too little of interest or entertainment is on offer.