By Isaac Butler
What are we to make of the films of Richard Linklater? In his low-key Austinite way, Linklater has somehow assembled as diverse a film career as anyone outside of his good friend Steven Soderbergh. Just think about it, the guy’s done everything from rotoscoped philosophical treatises to darkly comic science fiction to a bank heist movie, two classic romantic dramedies, two studio comedies (one excellent, one execrable), adaptations of plays by Eric Bogosian and Stephen Belber, and a bit of historical myth making about Orson Welles. His films don’t always work, but when they do they weave a particular kind of magic, one in which character and theme prove so fascinating that his disinterest in (or inability to manage) narrative all but disappears and you’re just happy hanging out, listening to these folks talk and interact.
And, indeed, folks talkin’ is the primary reason to see Bernie, his new film, based on the true story of a murder in the sleepy town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie is a curious film, equally influenced by Reds and The Thin Blue Line, in which actors (most notably Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey) reenact a story told through interviews with a mixture of actors and the real life people of Carthage, Texas, who in turn begin showing up in the narrative portions of the film. The interviews themselves are delightful. The subjects are colorful and charming, their speech peppered with the particular colloquialisms of East Texas. Even as the film bogs down, you sense that it is doing so simply because Linklater loves his subjects too much to edit them.
The film does bog down, however, largely because as a viewer it’s impossible not to get ahead of its story. You know as soon as Jack Black’s assistant funeral director Bernie meets Shirley MacLaine’s wealthy embittered widow Marjorie Nugent at her husband’s funeral, he will become her close friend and confidant, begin spending her money, murder her and be tried for it. What keeps you going through this journey is that, for the most part, it’s laugh out loud funny. The interview/reenactment scheme creates a healthy barrier of irony between the viewer and the story, and Linklater’s editing rhythms and musical choices keep reinforcing humor on a tonal level, even after Bernie turns into a murderer.
The problem with Bernie is that its various parts don’t really go together. What works about each component undermines something else in the film. The interview segments in the first half of the movie attempt to set up some kind of ambiguity about the kind of person Bernie actually is. Some interviewees claim he was a saint while others claim that he was, essentially, a gay con man who suckered widows out of their money. An actor’s job, however, is to create coherence and make specific choices. You cannot make the choice in a linear realistic film to play two different conflicting visions of a character.
It will perhaps shock no one that the take Black has on Bernie is heavily ironic, a bit self-mocking and lightly stylized. Jack Black is an explosive talent with limited range, and a tendency to break the films he is in simply through the outsized nature of his enthusiasms. Linklater has already directed School of Rock, one of the handful of films to properly contain Black. As stylized performances go, Black delivers a solid turn in Bernie, but it’s a performance that keeps you always distant from the film’s central character and the town’s love of him.
This becomes increasingly problematic in the second half of the film, where the project’s intent appears to shift again. After Marjorie is murdered and Bernie starts spending her money on charity projects and improvements for the city of Carthage, the film tries to become probe questions about whether all the good someone does should be erased by one titanic act of evil. But this is far too serious a concern for Linklater’s light hearted chillaxed approach, and neither Black nor McConaughey are up for suffusing their performances with philosophical inquiry.
What keeps the film watchable is Linklater’s obvious affection for the characters (portrayed and real-life) that dot the film, an affection made overt in the closing credits as we watch a performance of a pro-Bernie folk song and see footage of Jack Black meeting the real life figure he plays in the film. But I wondered watching it with my wife and a friend—both of whom are Southerners— in a movie theater in suburban Minneapolis whether that affection will translate. We laughed with recognition, as the people in the film reminded us of our families and their friends and all seem to be having such a good time being on camera talking about the roly-poly funeral director they loved. But there’s another way to read the film, as a zoo where you can go look at all the funny little rednecks, as a mean-spirited lampoon of the simpletons in rural America, a Waiting for Guffman but with real-life suckers playing themselves. I don’t think that’s what Linklater’s after—if anything animates his diverse oeuvre, it’s decency—but what an artist intends is not always what’s received.
Like the conflicted, contradictory impulses within the film, I find my own feelings about it refusing to cohere. Bernie doesn’t work, but it’s quite enjoyable, and while the parts don’t add up to anything like a convincing sum, taken on their own they’re good. You might find yourself wishing that a more fastidious craftsman, someone like Bernie himself, say, had taken a gander at the screenplay before the film was made, but then again, fastidious craftsmen tend to cut everything out of movies like Linklater’s that make them so beguiling to begin with.