Your monkey’s take on Bernie

May 30, 2012

OK, Bernie opened last week in Little Rock, so we ran Mick LaSalle’s review of it. Now it’s showing at the Little Rock Film Festival, today at 7 p.m. at Riverdale 10. Here’s my review, which comes to the same conclusion as Mick’s. This is one of the year’s best movies so far.

Grade: 90
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial
Director: Richard Linklater
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 104 minutes

Before I get into this review of Richard Linklater’s Bernie, I think I should provide some background. For most of 1988, I lived and worked in Carthage, the East Texas town where the film is set. While I’ve blocked out a lot of that portion of my life — it wasn’t Carthage’s fault but I was going through a rough period, trying very hard to do a job for which I wasn’t well suited — I think I remember meeting Bernie Tiede, who is played by Jack Black in this film.

At least I remember meeting someone very much like him — part of my job, as the managing editor of a small chain of semi-weekly newspapers, was to go to various civic club luncheons and to meet people. It was in this professional capacity that I met the real life Danny Buck Davidson (an excellent Matthew McConaughey, embarking on a career make-over), and almost everyone else in Carthage, though I can’t really recall much about them. (Majorie Nugent — played here by Shirley MacLaine — arrived in Carthage a few months after I fled the scene.)

Anyway, maybe none of that matters except insofar as it allows me to vouch for how precisely Richard Linklater portrays the town, and how well the actors mesh with the remembered reality. (The events of the movie took place about a decade after I left the place.) As Bernie, Black is remarkably nuanced, conveying his unspoken homosexuality with a precise note of prissy reticence, a species of modesty that these days probably only exists in small town America.

This is Jack Black’s movie — the best use of his considerable talents to date and almost enough to wash out the plastic aftertaste of his embarassing (but lucrative) Gulliver’s Travels turn. I don’t nominate actors for Oscars in my reviews, but Black’s Bernie feels like a real person with a complicated history and the capacity for both great kindness and murder. He’s a sweet man with a hungry hole inside him. I may or may not have met the actual Bernie, but I know this guy.

It’s probably not important to go much into the story’s true crime plot — if you’ve seen the trailer or read any of the reviews you likely already know more than you should about the movie. That’s kind of a pity, because Bernie ought to be discovered bit by bit, as its weird story is gradually spooled out by Linklater, who intersperses interviews with actual Carthage residents remembering the events of 15 years ago with dramatic re-enactments by his cast.

So you could say that Bernie is a bit like America’s Most Wanted, only with a high-priced cast taking over for the no-names who usually play the perps and victims. And that’s part of its charm; Linklater, an uncommonly inventive director who — when he’s good — is among our best, acknowledges the circumscribed circumstances of the small town without semaphoring any condescension at all.

Linklater co-wrote the script with Texas Monthly’s Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 story — “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” — laid out the Bernie Tiede tragedy with generosity and style.

This is a movie that is as strong as it is modest — as funny as it is sad. As wretchedly, thoroughly human as a work of art can be.

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