Monday, July 7, 2014
Bernie - Movie Review
― Flannery O'Connor
Based on a true story, Bernie is the tale of an assistant funeral director (Jack Black) who quickly, through charm and philanthropy, works his way into the heart of a small town. When he befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a cold-hearted heiress who the town hates just as much as it loves him, little does he realize how much he's risking. Marjorie becomes more and more controlling, and Bernie, sweetheart that he is, can't tell her no, even when she's driving him crazy. Eventually, something's gotta snap. And it does.
This movie is like a primer on Life in the South. Shot in a drama/documentary format, it interviews elderly church-women (DLOL's - dearliddleol'ladies), cheerful, foul-mouthed farmers, and matter-of-fact store-owners.
If you've lived in the south, you know all these people. In fact, the overall effect is so realistic that I was never sure which were actors and which were the real townspeople of Carthage, TX (it turns out there was a mix.) And it's clear-eyed enough to show the town in its beauty, but also its fallibility, given that this is a black comedy about crime and public opinion.
While its satire is sometimes overblown (Matthew McConaughey, as local sheriff Danny Buck Davidson, is fun, but unbelievable), it is mostly incisive and cutting, especially to those who have lived in similar settings. Gossip, good-old-boy mentality, and cultural Christianity can do a lot of harm, but the world they create is also charming, a society of Decent People. If the story was glamorized (it feels like a funnier, light-hearted Flannery O'Connor story), the place and people that made it possible was not. In the end, it asks the viewer to pass judgment.
Now, the actors themselves. Jack Black is surprisingly perfect, utterly convincing in the role of good-hearted Bernie. MacLaine is a wicked and charming femme fatale. As I said, McConaughey is obviously enjoying himself, but doesn't feel quite as real, thanks mostly to his lines. The writing itself is superb, though the pacing stumbles at times, and I'm not sure how well the ending works.
Perhaps the scariest part about this movie is that Bernie sounds just like, and looks very similar, to a local man who has all the DLOL's hanging from his every word, and plays the piano at the Methodist church. The most remarkable part, on the other hand, is the mixture of humor and censorious clarity with which the eccentric inhabitants of Carthage are portrayed...it is an indictment, but an affectionate one.