‘Must see’ movie : Bernie

The true crime story is a staple of TV and publishing but only rarely inspires movies. How lucky we are that Richard Linklater bucked that trend to make Bernie, a one-of-a-kind comedy based on the real homicide of an innocent old lady

Early in this cheerfully twisted Texas tale, a cartoon map appears with sections of the state broken down culturally, anthropologically. Sonny Davis, a colourful codger in a trucker cap, addresses the camera from his perch atop a diner stool, describing central Texas as the People’s Republic of Austin, full of “hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes”

The northern part of the state, he continues, is where the “Dallas snobs with their Mercedes” reside. Houston is on “the carcinogenic coast”

And Carthage, the East Texas town where our story takes place, sits along the Pine Curtain - “where the South begins.” “Truth be known,” Davis adds, “it’s a good place”

It’s also the place where Bernard Tiede, a man with a trim mustache and a generous heart, shot and killed the rich and spiteful octogenarian Marjorie Nugent 16 years ago

Jack Black does the most restrained and human-scaled work of his career as Tiede, a prim, gentle  mortician. The film opens with Bernie teaching cadaver cosmetics. He applies super glue to a corpse’s lips in preparation for open-casket viewing. “Even the slightest hint of teeth can be disastrous,” he cautions his students. “You cannot have grief tragically becoming comedy.” That’s precisely the strain of Southern Gothic humor Bernie achieves. Alternately merry and morbid, it charts the outlandish relationship between the most loved man and the most hated woman in Carthage, Texas

Bernie’s a pillar of his small town, a good Samaritan and confirmed bachelor. A star of the church choir and community musicals, he sings silver-throated hymns at funerals and takes care to console mourners. Then Bernie endears himself to Marjorie Nugent, the richest, meanest woman in town. Shirley MacLaine is cold, marble-hard and hilarious as the evil-tempered old dragon, making the tinge of romance about their alliance all the more repugnant. Cutting her relations out of her will, she directs her entire estate to her new traveling companion and business manager

But Bernie’s meal ticket carries a high cost. The possessive, domineering Marjorie makes his life unbearable, and in a spasm of temporary insanity, Bernie plugs her four times in the back, stuffs her body in a freezer and tells everyone she’s on an extended trip. Hot-dog district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, acting with appealing comic looseness) jumps on the case, only to find that none of the townspeople want to convict!

The Austin-based Linklater shoots on real locations, using Carthage and hiring locals as extras. His camera hovers in an almost miraculous fusion of proximity and comic distance. He shoots semi-documentary scenes with a chorus of coffee-shop and front-porch chatterers bluntly commenting on the case. “It wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was,” reasons one. “He only shot her four times, not five”

That humour is distinctly Southwestern throughout. As one of the locals, Kay McCabe - who is McConaughey’s mother (you can see where his looks came from) - gets off one of the movie’s better lines, “Honey, there were people in this town who’d have shot her for $5!” And then, of course, there’s this minor classic: “Her nose was so high up she would drown in a rainstorm”

Bernie is layered with stranger-than-fiction comic touches. Black does an outstanding performance as Professor Harold Hill in a community theatre run-through of ‘76 Trombones’ not long after the murder. It’s oddly funny how he could de-couple his private and public lives, and it’s also a perfect role for the Pied Piper who wins over a little town with his zest and charisma. The question remains, who wants to see a comedy based on a real murder? But Bernie is delightfully offbeat, wickedly good and well worth investigating. One of the best films so far this year

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May 02, 2013

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