Posted by Michael Parsons on May 14, 2012 in / No Comments


(This review was originally published on May 14, 2012 at Reel Film News)

“Bernie” is a quirky, oddly charming film. Yes, it’s a story about a murder – a true one at that – but it reminds me of a Christopher Guest film if spun from a Coen Brother’s script, like the “Best in Show” of justifiable homicides. It stars Jack Black in an unexpected career turn as a closeted funeral director who ends up committing murder and is subsequently chased down by a comically straight-laced Texas District Attorney played by Matthew McConaughey. The film also includes more spirited singing from Black than one of his Tenacious D concerts. Who could possibly resist that amalgam?

89180_gal-500x333It must have been heaven for director/co-writer Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”) to tell a story about his home state of Texas – East Texas, that is – specifically Carthage, which is situated a few hundred miles north of Houston (where Linklater grew up). The folks here distinguish themselves from the rest of the Lone Star State with their unique sense of hospitality and community values. This is exemplified by humorous testimonial from the locals regarding the impending scandal in pseudo-improvisational ‘mockumentary’ style (they are interviewed like favorable character witnesses for the soon-to-be defendant). Despite what might be considered a groundbreaking performance by Black as the title character, these secondary characters are what bind the film.

“Bernie” is based on an article by the film’s co-writer Skip Hollandsworth which chronicles the 1996 murder. Jack Black dons a persona like a relic of the ’50s Bible Belt, so wholesome it would make John Denver look like a gang member. Bernie Tiede is a flamboyant, overtly amicable assistant funeral director who rolls into town singing along to religious folk music, and is quickly adored by the whole town. He is genuinely altruistic. The  focal point, or at least the intended one, is Bernie’s burgeoning but questionable relationship with a wealthy, unanimously detested town widow played by Shirley MacLaine (in one of her most despicable characters to date). If you’ve seen “Guarding Tess”, you’ll notice a similar dynamic between MacLaine and what becomes her repressed man-servant. In “Bernie”, the outcome goes in a completely different direction.

89174_gal-500x333Carthage, so we’re informed, is known as the ‘squirrel hunting capital of the world’. The film doesn’t get much more sinister than that, considering the subject matter. Linklater has made Crystal Light out of the dark comedy, and I have to admit it’s pretty refreshing. He puts a mild spin on events I imagine were considerably more disturbing  in real life and pays more attention to telling the story from its periphery, through the town folk, whose lexicon is riddled with acronyms like DLOL (dear little old ladies). Even if Linklater’s vision falls a little short on substance (at least for a feature-length film), “Bernie” is consistently amusing.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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