May 7, 2012
Jack Black gives the performance of his career so far in this excellent film by Richard Linklater, based on an incredible true story about Bernie Tiede, a gay mortician in East Texas who befriended and then murdered Marjorie Nugent, a mean, old, very rich widow (Shirley McClaine). The humor in Bernie is delightfully black and salty, but the story is very sad. Based on a Texas Monthly article by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie is an atypical comedy in that it melds the fictionalization of Bernie's life with documentary-style interviews of the actual citizens of Carthage, a motley, colorful bunch. They also appear in some of the fictitious scenes, interacting with actors like Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey. Further confusing reality with fiction, professional actors (and they're so good it's hard to tell) also play some of the characters that are interviewed. Linklater even includes a scene in which McConaughey, who plays Danny Buck, a crusading D.A, has a conversation with two of the actual townspeople, (who happen to be the most outspoken ones) and the actor cannot play it straight. He betrays a smile and almost looks at the camera. It doesn't matter. This remarkable approach is a lovely device that fudges the real with the fake to remind us that reality is stranger, and crueler than fiction. Critics have complained that the interviews drain the movie of momentum, but I disagree. They are threaded very smoothly into the narrative and they add a very rich layer of astonishment. It's a risky stylistic move, and it makes the movie funnier, sadder, wiser and an utter delight.
Besides Jack Black, the best thing in Bernie are the townspeople themselves, who emerge as very distinct characters, each one with their own brand of the priceless local patois they effusively use to describe what transpired between Bernie, a universally beloved character, and Marjorie, a universally despised one. The casting of the real people is brilliant. They are a joy to watch, and especially, to listen to. They are gifted raconteurs.
The story is not just about Carthage. It's about a country in which the wrong people get punished all the time, while the real assholes roam unimpeded. Nobody disputes that Bernie killed Marjorie, including him. Being hateful is no reason to be murdered, though, and the movie tips the deck too much in Bernie's favor. After all he did kill her, while he could have walked away. But he was the kind of guy who could not put his foot down, could not disappoint, could not confront. He put up with her abuse until he snapped. Despite the town's protestations as to Bernie's character, The D.A. went after him with the zeal reserved for hardened criminals. An opportunistic campaigner, he showed no mercy and sought the harshest punishment. Meanwhile, Marjorie's family, who hated her and tried to sue her for her money while she was alive, conveniently shed crocodile tears over the inheritance the minute she was dead. Bernie's prosecution left a lot of sad and bereft people in its wake, and not only because they loved him, but because they had to give back to the FBI all the gifts he had lavished on them, courtesy of Marjorie's largesse to him. Apparently, he spent all the money she gave him by helping other people, which adds an extra notch of unbelievability to the story. One would think he'd insinuate himself to this nasty piece of work in order to get her millions. After all, they traveled the world and wined and dined until she turned on him as well, apparently incapable of being nice to anybody, not even the nicest guy in the world. She was so mean, controlling, possessive, jealous and petty that she was deliberately generous to him so she could enslave him. Still, one wonders, what was in it for him? He certainly benefited from her largesse until she soured. His story reminded me of Bernard Lafferty (what's with the Bernies?) who was the gay, faithful companion of heiress Doris Duke, self-abnegating and devoted to the point of insanity, and who also ended up with a bunch of her money. There is something very sad in these real life gay characters who are so bereft of self-acceptance that they need to seek that love in others, each in his own selfless way. It always ends in tears.
Bernie Tiede's insatiable hunger for love and acceptance translated, somewhat bizarrely given human nature, into irrational acts of generosity, instead of egotistical self-indulgence or narcissism. Jack Black gives a phenomenal, believable, committed performance as Bernie. And he is perfect for the role: Bernie is the nicest man ever, a fabulous mortuary salesman, an embalming genius, comforter of widows, confidante to the "LOLs" (Little Old Ladies) innate showstopper, devout Christian, a massive extrovert and a flaming closeted queen. He's the kind of guy who brings a ray of sunshine even to jail. Cynics that we are, we all keep wondering, there has to be more than that, there has to be malicious self-interest and greed. But his self-interest seems to have been to amass as much love and admiration as possible by being a philanthropist. There is something almost mythical about the story of the nicest man in town crossing paths with the meanest dame in town. Their bizarre co-dependence somehow reminds me of the schizoid nature of this country: either pathologically, destructively selfish (cf. Wall Street, Republicans, et al), or truly civic minded. Where is the middle way?
That everybody knows Bernie is gay but no one really seems to care is another one of the puzzling, yet endearing and true aspects of Carthage, and by extension, human nature. And by further extension, the nature of the gay rights debate in America. Although Bernie is not meant as a forum for or against gay rights, it just shows how the topic actually behaves in real society. For all the anti-gay rhetoric spewed by politicians and religious ideologues, particularly in that neck of the woods, nothing trumps people's common sense and their personal relationships. This is not to say that the citizens of Carthage harbor no prejudices against gays (or others, as is hilariously clear from one character describing the shortcomings of the citizens the next town over). They just harbor no prejudice against Bernie, because they know him and they love him. As is the case in genteel, provincial, bigoted societies, they all look the other way when it suits them. Some prefer to be in denial: a dear old lady protests that Jesus was over thirty and wasn't married, and neither were the apostles to her knowledge, and nowhere in the Bible does anyone claim they were gay.
Bernie connects us with that ineffable quality of American reality that makes you feel you are living in a crazy alternate universe where common sense and kindness have left the building. It feels like when you read the national headlines. You know Americans have to have more common sense and decency than the media and the politicians give us credit for, but it is nowhere to be found in the news.