Bernie (2011)

Every criminal lawyer’s dream is to have a jury in a murder case that unanimously believes the victim was worth killing.

Rating: Can be seen anywhere, particularly if you find yourself in a quirky mood.

BernieThe people of Carthage, Texas embraced Bernie Tiede, and you are likely to do the same in Richard Linklater’s goofy, loveable film entitled Bernie. Mr. Linklater is one of those talented, eccentric directors who deserves your attention, as he continues to dance on the edge of his industry.

Before exploring Bernie, which left the theater long ago, in a bit more detail, let’s take a short look at Mr. Linklater’s growing list of provocative films. To start with, consider his romantic twin tales of two young people meeting accidentally in Europe only to passionately fall in love in both Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Good grief, was there really a funnier film released on any level in the last 20 years than the madcap The School of Rock (2003)?

Mr. Linklater allows Bernie to work for the same reason that The School of Rock did, namely by once again bringing Jack Black front and center. Playing the immensely likeable Bernie, Black proves to his doubters that he is much more than a one-dimensional funny man.

To begin with, Bernie was one of the most popular men in Carthage. Possibly gay, the conservative townsfolk couldn’t have cared less. They loved his dedication and commitment to every tiny detail involved in the town’s funerals, and he earned the respect of the entire town by caring for the relatives of the deceased.

Ironically, one of the highlights of this film is Mr. Linklater’s constant use of outtakes where various people of the community were called upon to express their acerbic observations. These were screamingly funny, and they are a reminder of the roles played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as the cryptic announcers in this year’s Pitch Perfect. These were unpretentious people with a warm heart, and they find a way to give the State of Texas a good name.

The movie centers on Bernie’s relationship with one of the most hateful women to hit the screen since Faye Dunaway played the lead in Mommie Dearest (1981). Played with abandon by the legendary Shirley MacLaine, Margorie Nugent was so wretched that she had recently been sued by her own grandchildren. Despite the fact that none of her family will visit her, Bernie maneuvers his way into her company by his care and handling of her husband’s funeral. Though Bernie finds himself in fat city, it matters not to the good people of Carthage as he continues to earn their praise.

Unfortunately, even a decent person has limits, and Bernie simply needed to rid the world of a nasty human being so he could continue on with his good deeds. Despite dispatching the hateful Ms. Nugent by shooting her four times in the back at close range with a rifle, most of the town-folk saw no need to blow a legal whistle. Like good basketball fans, they believed in the phrase “no harm, no foul”.

Ironically, the glue that holds Bernie together comes in the person of Matthew McConaughey, here playing dedicated District Attorney Danny Buck. Good ‘ole Mr. Buck just wants to see a killer brought to justice, and he is left staggering as his fellow townspeople simply are fully willing to excuse a good death regardless of the cause.

As he did with his performances this year in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, Mr. McConaughey’s artistic star continues to rise. A dedicated prosecutor, he is forced to take the ridiculous step of seeking a change of venue so he can escape a twisted version of vigilante justice that has overwhelmed his hometown.

Additionally, Mr. McConaughey has demonstrated some clear ability to portray lawyers on the screen. In a profession that I am somewhat familiar with, it is notable that he has been so fundamentally effective battling the law as a defense attorney in both A Time to Kill (1996) and last year’s The Lincoln Lawyer. He approaches his role as an attorney in a fashion that I have repeatedly seen displayed at and around the Courtroom throughout the years.

Let me close by suggesting that all of you pay attention to the closing credits. Bernie is based on a true story, and you will see the actual Bernie being visited in prison by Mr. Black as he prepares for this role. Would it surprise any of you to learn that Bernie immediately became a likeable prisoner, helping other inmates learn how to properly prepare a meal?

In or out of prison, Bernie remains a loveable old goat.