Black’s Black Comedy

Bernie and Mrs Nugent

Even the “sweet” Bernie finds Mrs Nugent is hard going

Title:                           Bernie

Certificate:                12A

Director:                    Richard Linklater

Major Players:          Jack Black, Shirley Maclaine, Matthew McConaughey

Out Of Five?              4

We’ve had to wait a while for this one.  Bernie was actually made back in 2011, fetched up at the London Film Festival last October – and then disappeared into the doldrums of having no release date.  Even now, its distribution isn’t extensive and it’s not difficult to see why.  A black comedy about a funeral-director-turned-murderer, complete with graphic insights into the mortician’s art, isn’t going to have mass appeal.

Bernie Tiede is the assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  Through interviews with residents and flashbacks, we see how he establishes himself in the community so firmly that he is loved by everybody, especially the old ladies.  He eventually befriends Mrs Nugent, an elderly, rich and deeply unpleasant widow and becomes her companion.  Then her accountant realises he hasn’t seen or heard from his client for several months ……….

This is another film based on an article – surely we’re not running out of books to adapt?  The Sessions earlier this year was based on a newspaper feature and Bernie is inspired by an article in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth, who also co-wrote the script.  But it really is stranger than fiction, and that gives it an unsettling quality.

Its pseudo-documentary style reinforces that the film is based on the truth.  The commentary provided by the residents of Carthage – some played by real residents, others by actors – gives the film its colour, structure and momentum.  They are gloriously unaware of how much they are revealing about the town and themselves.  At times, they are uncomfortably frank, at others unintentionally funny: as a loose ensemble, they are a gift to director Richard Linklater.  Despite themselves, they paint a vivid picture of small-town America – albeit affluent small-town America, in this case: close-knit, proud and totally absorbed in other people’s business.

The saying goes that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is.  And, certainly, that’s your immediate impression of Bernie Tiede.  He’s devoutly religious, a consummate salesman, a pillar of the community, immersing himself in local cultural activities and good causes.  Nobody – especially the old ladies of the town – has a bad word to say against him.  It goes further than that.  He is frequently described as “sweet”, not a word that immediately comes to mind in describing a man.   The implication that he is gay constantly hangs over him, but this is never confirmed.  He is, without doubt, effeminate, mincing along as though his buttocks are permanently clenched and  with a waistband on his trousers that’s just a touch too high.  He always tucks his shirt into his trousers and, try as you might, you can’t escape the thought that it’s also tucked into his underpants.

This is, however, a very black comedy.  As his relationship with Mrs Nugent grows, she gives him power of attorney, so he is able to enjoy her wealth – foreign holidays, flying lessons and all the trappings of that money.  The reason Mrs Nugent (Shirley Maclaine) disappears is that Bernie eventually loses patience with her and shoots her.  In the back.  He then goes on a spending spree, benefiting the church specifically, individuals and the town as a whole.   He’s not a cold blooded killer, but he doesn’t give a second thought to spending all that money – partially to buy friends – so while you do chuckle at him, you also shake your head.  And not just at him, but at the residents who are steadfast in his support.  Has he deceived them all, or just himself?

Jack Black is totally convincing as the rather pathetic Bernie: this isn’t a wholly straight role for him, more of a transitional one which demonstrates he has more than enough potential to move away from comedy altogether.  This is nothing like any of his previous roles and, despite the temptation to go over the top with a camp character, Black delivers something much more subtle and compelling.  Matthew McConaughey continues his rich vein of form as the cowboy District Attorney with his eye to the main chance and any publicity he can get.  And while Shirley Maclaine over acts occasionally as the mean spirited Mrs Nugent, her face and demeanour is so sour she could have been weaned on a pickle.

Bernie is not a big film, nor would you describe it as a great one.  But it’s written and acted with subtlety and skilfully combines a very dark humour with sharp observation.  It’s been worth the wait, but it’s a shame not more people will see it.

This review is now available as a podcast: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Show/audio/5984

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