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Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011)


Very nearly a great American comedy with a profound thematic core, Richard Linklaterís true-crime farce Bernie is, like the small Texas town in which it is set, more sophisticated than it may appear at first glance. Like the most beloved films from Renoir, this idiosyncratic movie demonstrates the power of the individual to destabilize what we believe are our most deeply held moral and social codes. Linklater demonstrates here that Texans might possess more innocence than they are given credit for, spinning their casual biases into a deep meditation on our own congenial relationships with our corruption.


The film stars Jack Black as assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, who becomes the most popular citizen of rural Carthage, Texas before murdering its richest, meanest widow (Shirley MacLaine). The film never presents Bernieís crime a mystery, but what fascinates Linklater is the way that the town, who welcomed Bernie as one of their own, insists that his murder was scarcely a crime at all. Weaving pseudo-documentary interview segments into his narrative (many of which involve Carthage citizens who knew the real-life Bernie), Linklater very much makes this story one told by the townís collective memory of the charming killer. Ethical quibbles aside, this results in a film that is lighter than it has any right to be, which incidentally helps to intensify Linklaterís thematic pursuits. Bernieís likeability is allowed to dominate the film, turning Bernie into something of a crowd-pleaser, but a queasy one.


Black doesnít give a great performance here, but given that his typical turns of late have hovered between mugging and kitsch, his work here feels like a revelation. Fully conveying Bernieís charm and helping to shed a little light onto the manís desperate frustration, he is as good as he has ever been on screen. His mixture of earnestness and flamboyance makes it easy to understand how Bernie captivated the podunk town of Carthage, even if a clear understanding of why Bernie eventually became a murderer is a tad less forthcoming. The real stars here are undoubtedly the citizens of Carthage themselves. Linklater seems fully aware that without their quirky charms and skewed perspectives Bernie would have to be a much darker, much less enjoyable and much simpler film.



Jeremy Heilman