COMEDY: Bernie (2013)

Bernie (USA, 2013)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman

True crime stories have a tendency to be sensationalistic. Many films based on high-profile murders, kidnappings or other such cases go out of their way to be shocking or outré, and for every one or two that hit the mark, you get a dozen that come off as cheap, exploitative or just plain ineffective. Psycho wasn't scary because the real-life story of Ed Gene was scary: it was scary because Alfred Hitchcock worked hard to build up a creepy atmosphere in which the famous killings could take place.
Bernie arrives into this often histrionic little sub-genre much like its main character: it's a polite, orderly, cheery soul who does things rather differently. Reuniting Jack Black with director Richard Linklater, ten years after they collaborated on School of Rock, it is a surprisingly naturalistic blend of comedy and docudrama which raises several interesting moral questions. While it doesn't quite do enough to enter the pantheon of truly great dark comedies, it is nonetheless a very fine and memorable piece of work.
Throughout his long and variegated career, Linklater has had a knack for two things: creating believable and naturalistic characters, and then keeping said characters at the forefront. This is true of whatever genre he's working in, whether romance (the Before trilogy), sci-fi (A Scanner Darkly), musical comedy (School of Rock) or historical drama (Me and Orson Welles). His approach is often akin to documentary, in that he allows characters to speak and develop for themselves; you never get the sense of his camera pushing or telling people to go and do things a certain way.
For a film which is to all intents and purposes a comedy about death, Bernie is surprisingly gentle in both pace and attitude. Many black comedies are stylistically and narratively aggressive: the likes of Heathers and Kind Hearts and Coronets push their characters at you, surrounding them with dark tones and shadows to compliment their acid tongues and cruel intentions. Bernie, on the other hand, is a film which puts you with its characters in fairly inviting surroundings. Even the scenes in the funeral home are pleasantly lit, with an emphasis on achieving a naturalistic tone rather than setting up a given joke.
Being a comedy about death, which is slow-burning in nature and more focussed on character than on plot, the natural point of comparison would be Harold and Maude. Both films revolve around a romantic relationship with a big age gap, whose lovers are brought together by their experience of funerals. And with both couples, the relationship is not exactly orthodox, nor is it the toast of the town; the residents of Carthage are perplexed why someone as nice as Bernie would want to spend any time with someone as spiteful as Marjorie.
But in fact, the film is much to closer to another Hal Ashby work, Being There. Not only do both films feature Shirley MacLaine, but Bernie Tiede has several character traits which are very similar to that of Chance, played brilliantly by Peter Sellers. Both characters have an angelic innocence to them, a childlike quality which makes them instantly appealing or intriguing as characters. And both, more importantly, are seemly impossible to dislike. They make a huge difference in people's lives, improving their sense of well-being and leaving lasting memories. The only marked difference between them, aside from Bernie's eventual criminality, is that he is more conscious of his good will, while Chance has little to no idea of the impact that he is having.
The film also draws to a certain extent on the work of Alexander Payne. Both he and Linklater (at least in this film) try to strike a balance between observing human behaviour in an empathetic manner and a dry, dark and often spiky sense of humour. This film is not quite as successful in this regard as the likes of Sideways or About Schmidt, nor is it as touching or as weighty as Being There. But it's still very touching in its own way, and there is much to like about both the story and the way in which is told.
Chief amongst the film's assets is the central performance of Jack Black. What's extraordinary about it is how he manages to play the part so sweetly without it ever feeling fake or forced. Comedians often base their performances and routines on big, broadly comedic gestures, which can often mean that they don't come across as genuine when trying to act dramatically. But Black, having also worked with Stephen Frears and Peter Jackson, knows when and how to be serious, and he does it very well.
The other great asset of Black's performance is its understatement. When doing press for King Kong, he remarked that the trick to good screen acting was "moving the eyes rather than the eyebrows", a trick that pays dividends here. Black is a larger-than-life character, which works well in his comedic performances, but here he turns everything right down to make Bernie a very still, sweet and likeable man. He is called upon to sing on several occasions, and you would think that in those moments Linklater would indulge him, given his work on School of Rock. But even then he dials it back, resisting the urge to go off on a Tenacious D-style tangent.
Black is flanked on either side by two other good performances which round out the central cast. Shirley MacLaine is very well-cast, bringing a lot of charisma to an unlikeable role and treating those around her with as much contempt and disdain as Siân Phillips' Livia in I, Claudius. Matthew McConnaughey continues his streak of career-resurging nasty guys, turning in an appealingly warped performance as the Sheriff bringing Bernie to justice. Together these two form the malignant forces of spite and suspicion which eventually cause Bernie to snap and commit his terrible crime.
At the heart of Bernie is an interesting moral dilemma. According to the law Bernie is guilty: he confessed to the crime and all the evidence supports this verdict. Yet Bernie was so enamoured to the people of Carthage, achieving so much practical and moral good, that punishing him seems somewhat unjust even when we know all the facts. The film treads close to the territory of The Green Mile or A Man For All Seasons, asking us to condemn someone in the face of all the good they have wrought. It makes us question the power and purpose of the law, seeing it as both a worthy standard to uphold and something that can be twisted to all manner of personal whims.
This desire of Linklater's to question the boundaries of morality both situate Bernie as a black comedy and compliment the docudrama feel. Like many of the classic Ealing comedies, particularly Kind Hearts and Coronets, the film invites us to conflate notions of justice and morality, asking us if not to embrace the crimes than excuse them as serving some kind of greater or higher purpose. By structuring the film around the testimonies of local residents, the film builds up a more compelling portrait of the man. Rather than being simply told what Bernie did, it is demonstrated to us and we come to accept it more readily.
There are a couple of shortcomings with Bernie which prevent it from being elevated to the pantheon of truly great black comedies. The story is ultimately quite slight, not going into as much depth as it could have or bringing out deeper thematic implications of Bernie's actions, as happened in Being There. Moreover, the film is not quite as funny as it could have been. Not every comedy has to produce hysterical levels of laughter, with many of the examples I've quoted here being dry and slow-burning. But a lot of the time the desire to laugh must take a back seat to Bernie's backstory, with the talking heads cutting in over potentially comic situations.
Bernie is a very good, heart-warming little film which charms its way into your hearts and lingers there for some time afterwards. Black's fantastic central performance, together with those of his two main co-stars, are well-complimented by Linklater's soft, steady head and abiding sense of empathy for his characters. It's not perfect by any means, but just like its main character it will leave a lasting impression.

NEXT REVIEW: Monsters, Inc. (2001)