by Ken B.
“Comedy is essentially a sadistic genre… [it] is built off a strong negative emotion.”
– Alex Epstein, television writer
In the first scene, we are introduced to Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede, played by Jack Black. Bernie is a happy, kind funeral director, a nice guy in general. He is at a university, showing how to prepare a corpse for a funeral. At one point he says “You don’t want to turn grief tragically into comedy”. In a way, this is some strange foreshadowing to the movie ahead of you. Bernie, based off events that occurred in a small Texas town in 1996 and an article in Texas Monthly, joins a group of movies that create a strange comedic value off murder.
Bernie forms a friendship with newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (SHIRLEY MACLAINE), an old woman who is seen by the other residents of the town as nasty and bitter. Indeed, she is, but this doesn’t get to Bernie until suddenly one day, where this kind, gentle, generous man shoots her four times in the back with a gun she made him use to kill an armadillo. His next task is to go to extreme feats to have locals under the impression that this woman is still alive.
One of Bernie’s strongest assets may be its screenplay, written by director Richard Linklater and journalist Skip Hollingsworth (he wrote the Texas Monthly article the movie is based on). It takes a lot of risks, all rooting back to the first big risk, making a dark comedy based on a real murder, and also using the real names of the main people involved. At the same time, the script is also the movie’s main crippling point. While the movie never tells any direct jokes, but simply letting comedy unfold in the way that it tells its story, is it possibly too cheery relaying the story of the killing of an 81 year old woman? Nevertheless, if you watch Bernie, you’ll probably laugh a few times. You’re not going to feel good about it, but you probably will laugh.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just not usually a fan of Jack Black’s whole demeanor in movies. He has a tendency to enter a generally unappealing persona in the kinds of movies that I really just don’t like. But this movie is different – he really did change some of my impressions of him in his fantastic performance. There’s really a “look-at-that!” kind of attitude I felt while watching him, ranging from marching around a stage singing “76 Trombones” to lines explaining a dislike for cremation.
The movie is told through part narrative and part mockumentary, featuring what Linklater calls “gossipers”, or townsfolk talking about their initial impressions of Bernie. Everyone liked him, but as with all small town gossipers, they were all searching for his secret – something shocking or unpredictable about him. His own dirty secret was big enough to have him serve a life sentence in prison, something clearly far from the fare of said gossipers.
Bernie is far from a perfect movie, but it’s still a good one, and a depressingly overlooked one. According to boxofficemojo.com, Bernie, an intelligent and forward film reached only 332 theaters upon its widest release last May, while a movie like The Purge, which looks like one of the most idiotic of the year based on its trailer, is currently (as of June 17, 2013) playing on 2,536 screens. There’s a depressing thought for you.