Opening night of Film Independent’s 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival featured the World Premiere of indie hero Richard Linklater’s new effort Bernie starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine. As of the night of the screening, the film does not yet have distribution, but that should only be a matter of time and the right deal presenting itself to make it happen. So in the meantime, you can check this out, and still be able to see the flick spoiler free and fresh.
With Bernie, Linklater is able to blur the line between reality and fiction, creating this film in an almost “mockumentary” fashion, splitting off from the narrative of the film to take commentary from the residents of Carthage, which “lies deep in the piney woods of East Texas”. This commentary was both funny and telling, often making me wonder what I was supposed to laugh at and what I was supposed to be slightly disturbed by, and frankly where reality ended and fiction began, which was challenging, but rewarding. Having never spent any significant time in East Texas, I was a bit confused as to whether these scenes were making fun of them or simply showing them for who they are, which is not a bad thing either, just again, challenging to an outsider.
Jack Black is allowed to soar in this film as the titular character Bernie Tiede, a funeral director who has the town in the palm of his hand, getting as well as giving love and kindness to all he encounters in both his work and personal life. He is able to reach perhaps his full dramatic, comedic, and musical potential, carrying the heavy weight of the narrative on his shoulders, maintaining the even, consistent performance he delivers and the film needed to succeed. From his cockeyed walk and effeminate gestures and persona, to his heaving, prodigious gut with pants pulled up too high, to the porn stash he rocks throughout the film, Black became Bernie Tiede and owned him. This film makes viewers realize Black could carry a Broadway production on his back as well, owning the charisma, pipes, and willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed that would be well served in musical theater. Simply, Black was transcendent and hopefully he gets more opportunities at rich, complex roles like Bernie was.
Matthew McConaughey, like him or not, was born to play the hot shot twanging lawyer Danny Buck, breathing life into every frame he is a part of, elevating the words on the page to something beyond entertaining. His delivery and style define East Texas, bringing Linklater’s character a dose of realism that works within the often uncomfortable, foreign, but funny world of the film. This is not to say he did not bring the funny, because he most certainly did. But acting opposite Black and his unique style created a need for, and then the delivery of a nice balance that is difficult to achieve in these multi-genred films for lack of a better word. Shirley MacLaine plays the ornery, bitchin, control freak Marjorie Nugent, whom Black develops an interesting relationship with. She still has all the spunk of her earlier days and was an absolute asset to the film and narrative. Even before the film, she held the packed house in her hand and was magic.
Exquisite attention to detail was paid by Linklater from the outset, beautifully crafting a scene where Bernie is instructing on the funerary process and preparing the recently deceased for proper burial. Perhaps more, it was the light, unbounded, enthusiastic way Black played the scene to ease the weirdness, as dead bodies and death preparations are not exactly water cooler friendly topics. This ability to make dark items humorous worked for much of the film, but at times, it got muddled in the ambition of Linklater which is still to be commended. The guy just does not make simple, easy to digest films, and that’s we he is so beloved, because he tries and generally succeeds at telling rich, character driven stories that go beyond the limits of Hollywood productions.
Linklater continues to impress with his judicious use of either non-professional or inexperienced actors who fit the role he needs. I would guess many of the residents of Carthage who talk to the camera in interview type settings are actually people who live in East Texas and have that sensibility and look already built in. He has done this with many of his other films including Slacker and Dazed and Confused, which were perhaps more out of necessity, but he continues to do it I would guess because he realizes the value in doing things this way. One thing that can be said about his films, they carry an authenticity that few filmmakers can match and one I have always found charming, reflective of a larger humanness, and always entertaining.
So when you get the chance, as you certainly will, check out Bernie, transport yourself to the backwoods of East Texas, and embrace the unique culture that has developed there. Check back often here and at the LAFF website for more as the festival continues tonight with a lot of quality films screening the rest of the fest, as well as a cavalcade of events, panels, and parties still to come. For continuing coverage of The 2011 LAFF and other film festivals in the future, you can receive these articles directly as they are published by clicking on the “Subscribe” button at the top of this piece. You can also follow me on Twitter by searching for ericshlapack or by clicking the link below.
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