Richard Linklater is an oddity – he is capable of making so many different kinds of movies and twisting genres and stories, each one being a complete stranger to the one before. Those of you who follow my reviews know that I proclaimed Before Midnight the best film of 2013, and unless something impresses me more (and I doubt something will), Boyhood will likely be crowned the best film of this year. Both films are Linklater efforts, and with their grandiose dramatic pull, it is difficult to remember how Linklater is also perfectly brilliant at making comedies, with School of Rock being a cult classic. Linklater has never proved his comedic genius quite like in the offbeat and quirky comedy, Bernie.
Reteaming with his School of Rock star Jack Black, Linklater tells the story of Bernie Tiede, the soft-spoken and kind-hearted funeral director in a small Texas town who becomes the companion, and later slave of sorts, to the tyrannical Marjorie Nugent. Jack Black has chosen some very odd projects in his film career – there is no doubt he is a very likable actor, with his everyman appearance and slacker personality that contrasts the plastic stereotype of Hollywood, and he has had various degrees of success with his performances. Some of them have become iconic and beloved, while some have been total misfires. However, I can say the titular role in Bernie is probably his finest screen performance yet.
This was more than the role of a flamboyant Texan funeral director – the actor occupying the role really needed to be able to make us believe in this character and his motivations. He needed to be not just merely likable, but on a level close to sainthood. It was more than just a one-note performance in a quirky little film – it desired some serious dedication and real acting ability, and Jack Black delivered. When you begin watching the movie, for the first few minutes, all you see is the Jack Black we all are familiar with, but we very soon find that he completely disappears into the role, destroying all perceptions we had about him before – he isn’t the cool, hipster rockstar slacker we are used to seeing, but instead he is Bernie Tiede. Watching footage of the real Tiede, you can see Black really did do his homework – from Bernie’s voice to mannerisms to the way he carried himself, Black did not simply portray Bernie Tiede, he became Bernie Tiede.
In a cast filled with real Texas natives from the area, you have two other very impressive performances by well-known actors. Shirley MacLaine has never been crustier or more of a grumpy hag than in this. Her performance as Marjorie Nugent reminds us why Shirley has been one actress who has always capitalized on her aging to give brilliant performances, and some of the funniest parts of the film come from her bitter performance.
Matthew McConaughey also gives a gloriously dorky performance as the dedicated district attorney. In a town of simple folk who are naive and often border on insane, he is the one sensible character (which is strange, considering his recent philosophical behavior that in itself serves as comedy gold). The trio of Black, MacLaine and McConaughey help carry this film, and while some of the most memorable performances are those by the non-professional Carthage natives, it is the main cast that makes this a future cult classic. It is also great to see McConaughey and Linklater working together again after Linklater and McConaughey’s star-making turns in 1993’s Dazed and Confused
Linklater manages to tell the true story of Bernie Tiede, which while tragic (an elderly woman did lose her life, and Tiede did spent a lot of time in prison), is just ripe for a dark comedy. How else can you portray a man so enigmatically strange as Bernie Tiede in anything other than a quirky comedy? The dramatic moments are littered throughout the film, lending a lot of realism to the story.
Bernie is a hilarious, darkly comical and twisted story. It proves how Richard Linklater is one of the best directors working today, and how he is in a renaissance of filmmaking, continuously putting out exceptional work of amazing quality.