By Richard von Busack
So infectious the CDC ought to be notified, the Richard Linklater comedy Bernie—an easy pick for top ten of 2012—is loaded with Texas brio. (Bernie tickets and showtimes here.)
Bernie (Jack Black) is a plump and dainty mortician of the piney-woods town of Carthage, Texas. He’s beloved for his gentleness, and has a beautiful singing voice; one thinks of that description of William Randolph Hearst’s tones: “the fragrance of violets made audible”.
There is no slobbiness in Black this time, in the natty Wayne Newton mustache or the well-fed body, recalling the spruceness of the proverbial bathed-in-buttermilk pig. At a mortuary class, he’s even delicate about what he does. He explains the need for gluing shut a rebellious eyelid: “It’s as if they want a last look at this miraculous world”.
Bernie is excellent at preparing the many elders of the Carthage for their final public appearance, and even better at consoling the deceased. Young woman can’t catch him, but he dotes upon old ladies.
The mortician begins a relationship of sorts with the richest and most vicious widow in town, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine); that woman has run off all her relatives, and dwells in a 6000 square foot house filled with taxidermed animals. Whether Bernie is her friend or her kept man is a matter of lively discussion in Carthage.
As in Slacker and Waking Life, director Richard Linklater makes rounds of interviewing the locals, a group of semi-pro actors, most of whom are killingly funny. One, an old fellow at a café ornamented by a trophy large-mouth bass, gives a sage lecture about the difference in the various regions of Texas.
And if it sounds like a put-down to describe acting as pulling faces, MacLaine pulls the best faces seen this year or in many years. MacLaine is still very much the pistol. Her eyes may hide a bit in crinkled flesh, but they’re still capable of a medusa glare. She’s uproarious, filching scenes with reliable old comedy tricks such as noticing that the huge diamond on her finger has a smudge (she breathes on it to give it a little polish) or by the proper comedic use of a pair of opera glasses. Christopher Walken couldn’t be funnier.
MacLaine’s Mrs. Nugent is a woman of few words; she scowls through the film, the uncommonly mean jaw working during the dining scenes (among her dreadful habits is Fletcherizing her food). But she is a blurter: when Bernie describes how he was really meant for his vocation, Mrs. Nugent snipes, “Touching those dead bloated bodies?”
Bernie is based a true-life murder case, originally reported in the Texas Monthly by the co-scriptwriter Skip Hollandsworth. It was a rich piece of crime reporting: Hollandsworth writes
“Carthage is full of well-to-do widows who have inherited small fortunes from their rich husbands. Some of them can be seen driving their huge Cadillacs up and down the town’s streets, occasionally bumping into trees or stop signs when their tiny feet miss the brake pedal.”
Linklater keeps in almost all the details. But this film version goes more meta, in accordance with Linklater’s skill in hunting down a vibe. The town looks autumnal. Dick Pope, the cinematographer, goes with a lot of russet tones. The film looks like it was paneled in knotty pine. And Bernie celebrates the contradictory charm and awfulness of such a small town—it’s a place where they think the best of you and the worst of you, says a citizen.
Bernie gets some deserved elevation from its soundtrack of old and new hymns, mostly “Blessed Assurance” and “Love Lifted Me” by the Florida Boys, the latter performed by Black as he drives around the town he loves, twinkling at the citizens. As of School of Rock, Linklater was the first to know that if you had Jack Black singing and driving, you had half a movie already. But the hymn music isn’t meant ironically. There is a little Christian problem pondered in Bernie: does such forgiveness extend to the ultimate sin?
Bernie doesn’t satirize the religious folks over much; the film’s more concerned with a greater problem, that non-denominational desire to persecute. That mystery is in the gratuitous nastiness of a rich harpy, who, the Carthageans say, would drown in a rainstorm if her nose were any higher in the air. It’s also in the obnoxiousness of the slick DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, really good). Never without his white cowboy hat, the DA is certain he’s the hero of this mystery. But he’s baffled to find out he isn’t making friends and winning votes by prosecuting Bernie.
One of Linklater’s subjects is a sweet old lady saying “We’re all capable of that dark moment if we get pushed hard enough.” Linklater leaves half a moment to take that in. He wards too-cuteness away by recognizing the seriousness of that sentiment, dwelling in the hearts of the seemingly nicest people you could ever hope to meet.