Thursday, January 3, 2013
Director Richard Linklater’s films range from rambling, well-observed teen comedies such as the sublime DAZED AND CONFUSED to more reflective character studies, like BEFORE SUNRISE and its follow-up, to the crowd-pleasing THE SCHOOL OF ROCK, which gave Jack Black his best roles to date – until now. Here Black stars as the titular Bernie Tiede, a cherubic man who moves to the small town of Carthage, Texas, and takes a job at the local funeral home, where his attentive, considerate manner makes him popular with widows. Initially the widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) proves harder to charm. Wealthy and abrasive, she’s respected but not well-liked. Underneath the prickly surface, however, Marjorie is lonely and recognizes that Bernie’s solicitous nature may be used to her benefit. She acquiesces to his friendly overtures, and they begin spending much of their time together, including taking expensive vacations. But she is a possessive woman and jealous of his other pillar-of-the-community activities, which include singing in the church choir, directing the school play, and coaching a little league team, just to name a few. Her demands on Bernie soon increase, and she makes him her full-time personal assistant. She insists he quit his mortuary job, and thus he becomes her financial dependent. When Marjorie begins restricting his extra-curricular activities as well, Bernie finally cracks, the results of which lead district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) to open a criminal investigation. Black channels his charisma sans his usual antics, and MacLaine shows the vulnerability that underlies Marjorie’s misanthropic behavior. The script by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, upon whose Texas Monthly article the film is based, attains its quirky docudrama style by interspersing interviews with townspeople (some played by actors, others by actual residents) between scenes and vignettes. Linklater keeps the film’s tone light but allows a shadow to ripple just beneath the surface. Bernie’s actions are both relatable and unthinkable, and Linklater lets both views co-exist, albeit uneasily.