I try not to use the phrase “pitch-perfect” too much but I can’t think of a better way to describe the casting of Bernie, the true story of the world’s nicest man and his encounter with the world’s meanest woman.
Jack Black plays Bernie, the guy-of-indeterminate-sexual-orientation who manages to befriend Shirley MacLaine’s Marjorie, with Matthew McConnaughey as Danny Buck, the politically ambitious DA who wants to see Bernie hang when Marjorie goes missing.
Richard Linklater’s (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, School of Rock) film feels a bit like a Chris Guest mockumentary, with parts of the story being told in retrospect by the townspeople whose appearance and cadences seem to genuine to be actors.
But this isn’t a comedy. It’s funny in parts. Darkly funny in others. Funny weird in still others. And it’s provocatively philosophical in a very deep way.
Bernie’s a successful guy on most observable levels. He’s an assistant funeral home director who is a master at…uh…corpse preparation. (Makeup and clothing,) But once working in this small town mortuary, he also brings a more religious tone to the business. And when things get awkward or slow during a funeral, he’s there to smooth it out, or to lead the people in song.
Because he has a lovely singing voice. Lovely enough that he’s soon performing in the town’s community theater. And not long after that, he’s directing the plays (musicals, natch).
Wherever you look, he’s there helping out. And people might have some doubts about certain aspects of his personality, nobody seems to care too much.
Why, when an old man in the town dies, he’s at the widow’s house the next day with flowers and condolences, making sure she’s feeling okay.
And that’s where the trouble begins.
It’s in this way that he meets Marjorie, a rich old woman married to a mean old man who dies, revealing that however mean he was, she is even worse. But now she’s all alone. She’s estranged from her family, which has tried to sue her to get her money. She has no friends, although there are a few people who sort of tolerate her, like her business manager.
But to Bernie, why, this just means she’s even more in need of a friend than anyone.
There’s a reason the cast has to be perfect for this story. Bernie is just very good with people. He upsells them on caskets—but he does it because he truly and genuinely believes it’s respectful to the dead. He’s devout. He’s sincere. He’s generous.
His only serious flaw is that he’s a compulsive shopper, but even there he just gives everything away.
Very, very few actors could make this work. Just the slightest hint of unctuousness and you could end up despising Bernie faster than a California hillside catches fire. (Er, maybe a Texas one, since this takes place in Texas. Do they have hills there?)
But that wouldn’t be very interesting at all. If Bernie were just a greasy hustler on the make, this would be a horrible tale barely worth telling. But Bernie is good. At every turn, given the opportunity to do something good or right, he’ll do the right thing.
Well, almost. Which is what raises deep, and moving, questions.
This isn’t going to be a blockbuster hit, of course. It’s not exactly escapist, though its picture of a small town like one not many of us live in any more. It’s not a comedy, either; really, it’s a tragedy. A light tragedy, if such a thing is possible.
The Boy and The Flower both enjoyed it as well, though I think not as much as I did.