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How much does reputation matter?  Sure, in a day-to-day context, it could have little to no effect depending on the situation but what about during a trial case?  Take some of the more recent high-profile cases such as Casey Anthony, which had the media and the public fairly certain of her guilt much before the trial was close to finishing.  Reputation and perception are key integral factors into how we as a society respond to key issues.  Bernie has a similar purpose in mind – taking a microcosm of the situation with a small Texan city and trying to understand not only the motivation of the criminal but also the unique perception and aura created around him.  It may not be exactly revelatory or transcendent material, but a very strong performance from Jack Black and the subtle and dark humor nature of the film fit perfectly into a fascinating end product.

Bernie (Jack Black) is an enthusiastic and kind assistant funeral director in the small city of Carthage, Texas.  Although his job seems morbid, his personality is bright and enthusiastic, taking a deep interest in singing at church while making sure all of his job is perfect and smooth.  He goes above and beyond and the city around him has taken an adoration of him because of it with older ladies taking a fancy towards him while others feel that there isn’t a nicer person in town.  One day, he takes on the funeral of Marjorie Nuget’s (Shirley MacLaine) husband.  Marjorie was known in the town as a cranky and condescending woman, disliked by both her family and the townsfolk.  However, after the funeral, Bernie suddenly becomes closer and closer to Marjorie until they become sort of a couple themselves until one fateful day when Marjorie goes ‘missing’.  District Attorney Buck (Matthew McConaughey) becomes suspicious and thus begins the back-and-forth pull between the city and the DA.

Some of the obstacles the film faces are mostly due to the type of narrative it weaves and some of the stylistic choices it makes.  To tell such a plot, Bernie really focuses on it’s titular character quite extensively compared to any other character.  However, that does skew and perhaps even oversimplify the final situation more than it should, as it gives very few other characters room to both breathe and become more than just caricatures.  In the end, this falling out means that the DA, for instance, becomes a much more villainous character than possibly intended while Marjorie is also vilified quite a bit as well.  The other oddity comes in it’s stylistic choice to divide the film with silent film-like dialogue cards that try to give the film a more book-like feel with chapters and topic changes.  However, these cards, even when they try to present some humor, aren’t very engaging and feel out-of-place and lackluster.  The film could have carried itself much more without them and does slow the pacing down when they appear more frequently in the first half.

However, the whole of Bernie is quite an engaging watch due to the commitment to it’s dark humor, Black’s great performance and the fascinating story itself.  The approach to the dark undertones of the film at first seem off-putting and possibly offensive, but the end product isn’t disrespectful – it seems properly categorized for such a bizarre line of events and people involved.  The humor present is more observational and candid than slapstick or nefarious and works well since the small town mentality and the characters more than create a fairly colorful group of characters.  The subtle filmmaking style fits well without forcing flashbacks or unnecessary exposition onto the audience as well, creating a quieter but smooth narrative ride through the plot.  This subdued style also highly came through in Black’s performance and creates one of his best characters yet.  Black plays a character that is outwardly quite opposite from his usual bombastic and quip-heavy self but intrinsically, plays to Black’s strength as both a great singer and confused inner self.  This pulled back stylistic choice brings out the best in his character and his acting as Bernie’s moral quandary and whether his goodness is inherently pure or not is highly questioned from midway on through the film.  Finally, the plotline itself carries enough weight to really continue to capture a-hold of the audience from the observations of the community to the actual crime and the aftermath.  The plot, other than some of the more questionable inclusions, grows organically and stays interesting throughout as moral dilemmas and the notion of character becomes more and more integral to the central plot.

Bernie is a fascinating character study and one of Jack Black’s best roles.  It’s not entirely sound as the film includes some unnecessary stylistic flourishes and a plot that is more biased towards Bernie’s side from the get-go.  However, that being said, the film’s quiet, subdued approach to the subject matter is captivating as the film’s pseudo-mockumentary approach pays off in really trying to understand the psyche and approach of both the town of Carthage and Bernie himself.  Best of all is Bernie himself, Mr. Black, who never plays the role straight for laughs or overly flamboyant but much like the film’s approach, acts with subtle grace and ends up as one of his most memorable roles to date.  The end product is a dark comedy that tries to observe not only one character’s personality and limit but also looks into reputation and judgement – a film that is both memorable and dastardly.

Director: Richard Linklater
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 104 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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