Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review: "Bernie"

In one of the many talking head segments of Richard Linklater's (Before Sunrise/Sunset) Bernie, an old man delivers a hilarious summation of Texas by dividing into 5 separate states. Not only is the bit funny and laced with truth (calling Houston - my hometown - and the surrounding area the 'carcinogenic county), but it also perfectly captures everything that works in Linklater's latest (minor) gem. Based on a true story, the Carthage, TX-set film follows Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a local assistant funeral director who, despite being nothing but charming, finally gets pushed too far by a nasty older woman (Shirley Maclaine).

Yet despite the presence of Black, who last worked with Linklater in 2003's wonderful School of Rock, and his two major co-stars (the other being Matthew Maconaughey), the film seems to have more than just Bernie on its mind. Though not quite done as a faux-documentary, the film is built around a series of questions, and spends a surprising amount of time capturing the essence of the film's setting, as well as its people. It may hold back the performances - Black is good, but never has any moments to truly shine other than the pitch-perfect opening - but it doesn't keep the film from being enjoyable. In fact, some of the stretches filled with back-to-back interviews are among the best parts of the film. The people on screen (some of whom are actors, some of whom are not) all seem so comfortable on camera, that it only adds to the film's tone and charm, when it could have come off as a lame way to spoon feed exposition. Yet as enjoyable as Bernie is, there are times when the lack of focus on the title character leaves one wanting. There's little to no exploration of what makes him tick; we're simply told over and over again that he's disarmingly positive and nice, and that's virtually it. The scenes with Black and Maclaine are, however, very effective, and the two play off of each other very well, which does help make up for it. Black is, thankfully, actually playing a role with sincerity, and it works as a nice antidote to, well, basically anything else he's ever done on screen. Yet in choosing to place atmosphere and vibe above character development, though, Linklater's latest winds up as an amusing (and sometimes laugh out loud funny) venture, without anything to make it truly memorable. Still, some of the laughs really are worth it.

Grade: B/B-

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