Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Time: 100 mins
Bernie is an American film about the true story of a small-town funeral director who developed a relationship with a local, recently-widowed millionaire, but soon found himself in hot water as his influence over the local community grew.
Of the many hits from director Richard Linklater, Bernie admittedly isn’t the strongest, although still delights with a sharp sense of wit and really strong characterisation, backed up by great performances across the board. At times, it’s a little meandering, and never quite as funny as it aims to be, but it’s a film that grows and gets better as it unfolds.
Let’s start with the positives, the biggest of which comes in the form of the screenplay’s characterisation of Bernie, the man at the centre of what ultimately becomes a major scandal. Based on a true story, the movie gives a brilliantly eclectic portrayal of the man, leaving you in two minds as to what you really think about him.
It’s easy enough to write a screenplay which presents somebody as either bad or good, but Bernie is always somewhere in the middle. While he’s clearly a dedicated, charismatic and kind person, there’s something really quite unlikable about him from the start, making your appraisal of him all the more difficult.
That excellent characterisation is bolstered by Jack Black’s fantastic central performance, which brings together all of the screenplay’s differing perspectives on Bernie, all the while adding in a dash of great comedic energy.
The ambiguous view of the character plays well with the film’s dark wit, and it all comes to a head with an enjoyable but still intriguing court case where it’s difficult to pick your side – as is so easy in the vast majority of films.
As far as the film’s comedy goes – it’s not amazing, but nor is it terrible. Linklater’s films have never been about big, easy laughs, and so the main humour here is in the film’s portrayal of how a small town functions, and the way it responds to a scandal within the community.
In that vein, the film is largely narrated by ‘interviews’ with residents from around town, poking fun at the nosey, gossipy nature of small-town residents, as well as an ingenious and hilarious view on the inevitably self-interested nature of people when things begin to go sour.
Those ‘interviews’ are great for getting the film’s point across, but they do feel like a hindrance for its pacing and energy. As sharp as its wit is at times, the film really lags at times, slogging through a very slow first act that’s too often interrupted by the views of residents, and only really finding its feet in the latter stages, when everything begins to come together.
Saying that, there’s a clear reason why Linklater takes the approach he does in this film, but it’s fair to say that it doesn’t quite work perfectly. Otherwise, Bernie is an enjoyable watch, with good wit, great performances and a fantastic characterisation of its protagonist. So, that’s why I’m giving the film a 7.2 overall.