Richard Linklater's "Bernie" is an oddly endearing love letter to Southern eccentricities that calls to mind no less than his iconic "Slacker." However, the comparison ends there: With its purposefully naive sense of self-mockery, "Bernie" is a shape-shifting genre vehicle set apart from anything else in Linklater's career. There's a loose sensibility to this mockumentary -- mysterious comedy? comedic mystery? It's tough to categorize as anything beyond an enjoyable experience.
Set in the tiny East Texas town of Carthage, "Bernie" takes its inspiration from a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth about the true story of Bernie Tiede, a curiously ebullient mortician beloved by everyone around him. Having perfected his funereal art, Bernie extends his influence to helping Carthage residents mourn. He also commits himself to improving other aspects of their self-contained world with an unnaturally excessive righteousness that runs from spiffing up the theater productions to leading the church in song. Bernie's supreme generosity makes him impossible to dislike, which may enable him to get away with murder.
Unsurprisingly, the man who first made his mark with "Slacker" 20 years ago has a marvelous eye for southern idiosyncrasies, but Black's delightfully off-kilter performance really makes the material click. With his spiffy Clark Gable mustache and seductive stare, Black delivers his most original performance since "Margot at the Wedding." Linklater first reveals his anti-hero cheerfully preparing a corpse and then tearing down the main road of town, belting out Kenny Rogers' "Love Lifted Me" over the title credits.
Bernie's endearing screen presence becomes Linklater's main coup.The twist arrives when Bernie's kindness to local sourpuss Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) works against him. A reclusive widow hated by the community, Marjorie eventually welcomes Bernie's presence in her life, and decides to trap him in it. Her cold, self-centered treatment eventually leads the frustrated mortician to grab a rifle and shoot the woman in the back, stuff her in the freezer and go about his life. Until, of course, the police come knocking.
This isn't a spoiler: For one thing, it really happened; for another, Linklater leaves unclear exactly what happened because the entire movie takes its cues from unreliable narrators. "Bernie" regularly cuts to Carthage locals, some played by amateurs, discussing Bernie and his act in the conventional talking-head format. The last time he incorporate that approach was "Waking Life," which contained real (but rotoscoped) interviews to a far more contemplative end. In "Bernie," the interviews play like a Christopher Guest comedy minus the blatant gags. The story is driven by people who witnessed it.
Or, at least, they think they witnessed it. Bernie's outward congeniality sways the town toward defending his violent act. Linklater embodies their moral ambiguity by maintaining a skeptical approach: The actual murder scene has a strange, incredulous feel to it and Bernie's psychological baggage (some residents wonder if he might be gay) remains concealed. The entire movie operates with believe-or-not sensationalism in check, and the only person shocked by the proceedings is noble district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), who actually moves Bernie's trial to another part of the state because no Carthage jury can view the defendant without affection. "He cast a spell over the whole town," Danny says, mystified, as Linklater must have been when he first encountered the tale.
Bernie's true nature is up for debate and Linklater's subjects offer a lot of it. Was he gay? Lonely? A power freak or just a little off? The endless speculation makes "Bernie" a tonally confusing, erratic affair, reflecting the multiple storytellers (although their words are scripted). "What you're fixin' to see," reads an opening title card," is a true story." But the only real truth comes from the spot-on characterizations of small town Americana, which Linklater prods for all its comic potential. (When a Carthage resident begins explaining the qualities of different Texas regions, a pop-up cartoon illustrates his words, marking "the panhandle" at the top of state with a question mark when the guy can't figure out how to describe it.)
On the surface, "Bernie" contains echoes of vintage Coen Bros. outings and other comedic true-crime stories, including the similarly cheerful "I Love You Phillip Morris." That movie, however, thoroughly inhabits its genre, whereas Bernie regularly deviates from it in an amusingly self-aware fashion. "You cannot have grief tragically become comedy," Bernie says while directing a community play, and yet Linklater does just that.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although "Bernie" played a widely positive reaction as the opening night film of the L.A. Film Festival on Thursday, it remains unsold. With the collective star power of Black and McConaughey, it has potential for wide release, although the offbeat material and complex structure present a tough sell. A mid-sized distributor could help propel it to moderate commercial success.
criticWIRE grade: A-
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