If you've seen Gus Van Sant's darkly comedic 'To Die For,' you've seen a similar story done better. 'Bernie' is the latest Richard Linklater film, but it lacks much of the energetic spirit he's been known for in past films. This movie basically banks on the audience adoring Jack Black as a sweet, caring assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede. While Black deserves quite a bit of adoration for the role, his quirky, smiling mug offers respite from the rest of the film's badly paced interviews of the townsfolk recounting the everything that happened.
'Bernie' is based on the true-to-life story of a murder that took place in a rural Texas town called Carthage. A town where everyone knows each other and gossip spreads like wildfire. Real townsfolk are used during the interviews. Like 'To Die For,' the movie plays out as a kind of flashback. As the people discuss the events surrounding what happened, we see snippets of Bernie living his life in Carthage.
Bernie (Black) is the most beloved man in Carthage. He's a portly fellow with a grin that made old women weak in the knees. Bernie worked at the local funeral parlor. He took pride in making the deceased look as good as they possibly could. Bernie loved everyone and seemed like one of those guys who simply got along with everyone.
While Black is enormously amusing as Bernie – he waddles around on screen grinning at everyone and singing "Amazing Grace" at funerals with an ever-so-subtle Tenacious D twinge in his voice. However, the movie surrounding him is an oddly paced endurance test. Linklater interviews as many of the real-life townspeople as he can, and even though they're funny at times, their impact is minimal because the movie is so repetitive. The first 30 minutes or so establishes how nice Bernie is, over and over and over. It becomes tedious after the third or fourth person gushes about how great Bernie was.
Bernie ends up befriending a local widow who was left with a ton of money from her husband. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is her name and being a soulless bitch is her game. Everyone in the town hates Marjorie. She's mean, vindictive, and is the kind of person that will slam the door in your face, even if you're a relative. Bernie's likability is infectious though and Marjorie soon invites Bernie into her life and starts spending all her money on him. The only terrible part is that Marjorie is still mean and has become very possessive of Bernie. So, he kills her.
This all happened. It's the true story. Black, MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey (he plays the local district attorney Danny Buck) reenact the story as the residents of Carthage discuss the events in interviews. The problem comes when the interviews lack much detail and end up feeling redundant, which in turn affects the reenactments, which after a while, end up feeling like something you'd see on TruTV during one of their many real-life murder mystery shows.
While the movie sticks close to the truth with the first-hand accounts of the townspeople, it's hard to ever become interested in the story as a whole. It doesn't feel like a very cinematic story idea to begin with (this was one time I was wishing that a few artistic liberties would've been taken with the story). Black creates a great character here, but he doesn't have much to work with. Too much time is taken up by aimless jabbering from the residents and not enough time is spent exploring Black's character and his relationship with Marjorie. At the end, it all feels very superficial. Like you just sat through a long segment of a '20/20' murder mystery recounting on a lazy Friday night.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Millennium Entertainment release. It comes on a 50GB Blu-ray Disc, has been packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase, and has been given a slipcover that flips open on the front (it's held together with a Velcro strip like 'Wall Street 2') which features more stills from the movie along with a bunch of "this movie is the most amazing thing ever" quotes from various critics. It's labeled on the back as being a Region A release.
As you'd expect, since 'Bernie' was released in 2011, that the movie would look crisp and detailed on Blu-ray. Indeed, it does. Linklater along with cinematographer Dick Pope, have created a warm cozily lit atmosphere for Bernie's world. Carthage, Texas is a green place full of huge trees and expansive sod-covered yards. Green shines here along with many other colors.
Bernie's constantly changing wardrobe of patterned shirts makes for a colorful display of reds, blues, and greens (there's even some prominently featured granny-panties that are purple). The movie is a brightly-colored affair to say the least, but all the colors look natural – including skin tones. Nothing looks like it's been artificially enhanced.
Detail is right on the money. You can see the individual whiskers in Black's mustache and the freckles on MacLaine's neck and arms. Edges are easily definable. There aren't many low-lit scenes, but when there are shadows are well-produced and blacks are nice and dark. This is everything you'd expect a recently released movie to be.
'Bernie' has been provided with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that neither disappoints or wows. I bet you already guessed that with the kind of movie 'Bernie' is it just doesn't have much in the way of scenes that would impress from an audio standpoint. The fact is, 'Bernie' is a talkative affair as we listen to interviews and then watch Black and MacLaine interact. There isn't much more than that. So the most important thing is the dialogue which is delivered cleanly front and center. As for ambient sound, there isn't much. The most comes during the courtroom scenes as audible gasps can be heard in the rear channels when the audience hears the verdict and as McConaughey's voice echoes through the courtroom. Other than that there really isn't much more to highlight here. Dialogue is clear and that's about all you can ask from this movie.
I felt the film's interviews with actual town residents worked against the performances given by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. The two parts of the film never seemed to mesh all that well, like they did in 'To Die For.' Here, whenever the real people pop on screen, the movie grinds to a halt. It ends up feeling like a TV murder mystery special more than anything. The performances from Black and MacLaine are great, but they're tied up in too much other stuff to make them really meaningful. Worth a look, especially for fans of Richard Linklater and the stars.