Film Review: Bernie (2011) [London Film Festival]

on Tuesday, September 27, 2011
'Bernie' (UK Release: TBC) // Words: Saam Das

Jack Black in Richard Linklater's 'Bernie'

Richard Linklater's latest film 'Bernie' sees the director team up with former collaborators Jack Black ('School Of Rock') and Matthew McConaughey ('Dazed And Confused') for this pseudo-documentary on the tragi-comic tale of larger-than-life Texan funeral director, Bernard Tiede. The most bizarre thing being that 'Bernie' is based on a true story.

Jack Black plays the titular assistant funeral director, a well-loved community figure celebrated for his excellent pastoral work with the families of those who have passed away as well as his enthusiasm for local musical theatre. Linklater uses documentary-style voxpops from both actors and the real-life townspeople from Carthage to flesh out Bernie's character and add several humourous anecdotes.

The film begins to move away from the comedic elements as Bernie becomes the companion of the newly widowed and significantly evil Marjorie Nugent, portrayed by Shirley Maclaine. Nugent is despised by the East Carthage community, and undoubtedly any audience that views this film, despite (or perhaps partly because of) her lavish riches.

Nugent begins to suck the life out of Bernie, and eventually the film for that matter, as the tone changes quite dramatically in the latter half of the film. Up steps Matthew McConaughey, as an obnoxious but moral-minded district attorney, to try to revive our ailing interest but alas the situation proceeds in a rather formulaic manner.

Much of 'Bernie' however is a joy - Jack Black excels as all-singing, all-dancing Bernie and Shirley Maclaine is positively risible as Mrs Nugent. As with Black's individual performance, the film falters as it moves into the dramatic territory with the townspeople steadfast on one note and McConaughey similarly immovable on another. Consequently, this supposed conflict isn't particularly engaging.

Whether Linklater's aiming for much more than simply bringing a fascinatingly odd true story to the screen (much like 2009's 'The Informant!'), I'm not sure. 'Bernie' seems to both subvert and embody Christian values, while also flip-flopping between laughing at and with Texans. It's the lack of consistency that unfortunately ends up scuppering 'Bernie'.


'Bernie' is showing at the BFI London Film Festival this October.

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