Friday, June 1, 2012

Bernie (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Veteran Indie director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise) takes a Southern Gothic spin in his latest outing "Bernie", starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. The film has a breezy  manner and it is refreshingly colorful despite its Capote-like subject matter of murder in the deep south. "Bernie" is easy on the eyes and unfolds like a delicious pulp detective novel on a Hitchcockian Summer day.

The film is based on the real life murder of Marjorie Nugent and her murderer Bernie Tiede in Carthage Texas on November 1996. The murder deeply divided the sleepy East Texas town and many felt that the charismatic Bernie was a gentle and kind man who possessed such a faultless generosity to many of the locals that most held fast to his innocence and pressured the D.A.

Rather than poker-face the gruesome circumstances, Linklater gives his events a comic razor's edge ala John Waters ever so slightly and this gives the material a compelling edge rather than make it a mere silly story. Indeed, it is the gallows humor treatment that has caused most Carthage locals to turn a sour cheek on the film. Many just don't care for comedy when real life is involved.  

In terms of cinema however, the story is gleefully ghoulish and quite flawless, not least for showing the town of Carthage as a startling and vivid presence, however pulpy. The locals portrayed in the film stand on their own merits as delightful gems of self-deprecation. Many of them are as entertaining as Nicolas Cage, Jack Nicholson or Johnny Depp. This is most evident in the case of Kay Epperson. She has a lazy delight and irreverence that will produce many an unexpected chuckle. She almost steals the film. 

Jack Black has never been more watchable nor possessed more spirit for his character and he wisely employs equal parts bravado and restraint here. This is Jack Black's most balanced and complete role. In his nearly total effeminacy, coupled with his dark mustache and coat, he resembles a sable oleander, killing many with kindness not to mention his sweet syrupy Gospel voice.  Black comes close to the legendary Jonathan Winters in "The Loved One" (1965).
Jack Black is so good here because he forgets his  past comic persona and simply transforms to become this odd and seemingly empathetic man.

Shirley MacLaine does well in her role as the widow, although Marjorie is a one note octogenarian here---all bluster and no bliss. Her whines become shrill and hyperbolic. As a Battle-ax, "born old" with a perpetual prune face she garners little sympathy. Nugent would be more compelling if she were written with less neon or kitsch. Such bold strokes are not necessary. Comedy is often far more virulent once it is toned down.

"Bernie" is a satisfying romp that will give you a solid bout of the terrible tickles. It will seduce you with a sinister sense of the silly, not least for its sharp and bouncy banter and dialogue. While the film is often zany it is never ridiculous and you may just want to find out more about this deadly but delicate man who tried to submerge his emotion under a masque of compassion.

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