Friday, December 14, 2012

Lady Killer

I was about to go to the movies yesterday when it hit me; nothing I hadn't yet seen looked all that great. Between feel-good romance Playing for Keeps, Brad Pitt flop Killing Them Softly and Saw knockoff The Collection, I just couldn't muster the effort to walk out the front door. I had work in the evening, so showtimes also conflicted in me going to Anna Karenina or Breaking Dawn: Part 2. That's right, people; desperation makes a Twilight film look better than most other options.

So I turned on Netflix to see if there was anything I could watch to pass the time. I still typically use it to watch TV shows, as most movies available in streaming aren't worth a second glance. It should also be pointed out that I had watched the (brief, unsatisfying) Golden Globe nominations in the morning, so I had a good idea what movies I had missed that might have been worth catching up on. Lo and behold, Bernie popped up almost immediately on the screen. Released last spring, Bernie had garnered some positive reviews but never really caught any traction. I can't say I'm surprised; Jack Black's star has quickly faded domestically, and as many people know I prefer the comedian in supporting roles, where his particularly manic frenzy can be mitigated by limited screen time. But with his nomination in the Globes' "Best Actor - Comedy/Musical" category, plus those aforementioned reviews, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.

Not the first thing you want to see in the morning.
Black plays real-life Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede, an assistant funeral director and all-around good guy living in Carthage, Texas. When the effeminate, transplanted Louisianan arrived in Carthage, he quickly became a popular fixture in the small town. Always friendly, charitable to the point of excess and constantly thinking of new ways to contribute to society, he was one of Carthage's most popular residents. Naturally, when he befriended the town's least-liked member, 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), they became inseparable, touring the world and spending more time together than Nugent ever had with her family. But she was a cruel, jealous and venomous woman, and eventually her toxic personality pushed the mild-mannered, eager-to-please Bernie to murder.

One of these things is not like the others...
It's easy to see why Black has received such acclaim for his performance as Bernie Tiede; this was a role that could have easily veered into the territory of effeminate characters a la The Birdcage, which would have undermined the obvious appeal the real-life Bernie had on the small, Texas community. Black does get to have his fun, but his work here also carries unexpected amounts of subtlety that was missing from almost every single movie he has done before. It's easy to see why the real Bernie was so liked, and this performance shows the potential of maturation that Black has finally experienced after more than a decade of lewd, rude "humor". Perhaps it was reuniting with School of Rock director Richard Linklater that caused this unforeseen transformation, as familiarity often helps encourage risks. This was a good one, then, and Black manages to command every single one of his scenes with ease.

Hello, room service? I'd like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles with a side of Grapefruit.

The rest of the film is okay, but doesn't quite stack up with its leading actor. Pacing is one problem; the lack of it, actually. Often the story moves along at its own pace, which at times is brisk and at others slothful, with almost no middle ground. Much of the early portion of the story is utterly without focus and the final act passes far too quickly, resulting in an uneven tale that relies on its lead to impress. Also, Linklater is way too biased in his storytelling, his aim on portraying Bernie as the hero in all this, and Nugent as a mad spinster who got what she deserved. Any bad thoughts about Bernie are funneled into the prosecuting attorney determined to take him down (played competently by Matthew McConaughey) and few others, and the director gets a little picky about historical accuracy; he choosed to ignore the fact that in fact the people of Carthage were split on their opinion of Bernie's crime and instead focusing on the supporters on the whole.

ANGRY tanned man!
But Linklater does a lot of good as well. In one nice touch, he uses real Carthage residents in interviews about the murder and both Bernie and Nugent, and the more charismatic ones he even uses in the scenes of the actual movie. Despite his biased storytelling, he does it in a way that is both entertaining and unpredictable, so that unless you had read the Texas Monthly article on which the movie was based, you wouldn't have any clue how things would shake out. There are also many standout scenes which will have you unexpectedly bursting out with laughter, and of course there's his excellent work with Black. Given these treats, it's easy to forgive Bernie's faults, as it certainly never left me bored.

We find the defendant funny... THIS time...
When it first became available, I passed on Bernie for a number of reasons. But while I'm not sorry I didn't pay to see it in the theater, I am happy that I decided to give it a second chance. If you're like me and didn't take the opportunity, do yourself a favor and nab it on DVD or Netflix. It's a black comedy with an unexpected strong acting performance, and if you give it a chance then you will certainly be surprised by how much you enjoy it.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

Glad you were finally able to see this little gem. I saw it in the theater last spring, though I was apprehensive with Jack Black in the lead. I'm hot & cold with him, preferring him more when he's in a supporting role. I think when he gets the lead in the comedy he often can get out of control.
(as you note, with Linklater directing, one of the few Black films I really enjoyed was "School Of Rock")
I don't recall hearing about this story when it first hit the news and found myself somewhat torn as the story progressed. Though Bernie killed her in cold blood, and I'd normally be 100% behind his conviction, I actually caught myself kind of hoping he'd be found innocent.