A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011)

Imagine Bernie without Jack Black, but with, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. Hoffman would have played the hell out of the part, which is one of the reasons he is so sorely missed, but the tone of the film would have been very different. What Black brings to the role is a very familiar image, that of a scamp, a mocking presence in almost all of his previous movies. But here he's cast against type, as a sweet-natured possibly gay man who manages to capture the hearts of a small East Texas town, and more particularly the shriveled heart and deep needs of a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine). It's the tension between the manic imp of his earlier films and the good-hearted (if naively lethal) Bernie that gives this movie its acerbic tone. I had forgotten that Richard Linklater also directed School of Rock (2003), Black's first big hit in a starring role after stealing High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) out from under the nose of John Cusack. It's to Linklater's credit that he sees more in the actors he works with than others do. Small town East Texas is an easy target for satire, and I understand the critics who liken Bernie to Fargo (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1996), which did similar things with the easily caricatured accents and mannerisms of the deep plains states. Having grown up in the South and lived in Dallas, on the fringe of East Texas, I have known a few Bernies: somewhat effeminate men who don't fit the good-ol'-boy stereotype of the region, but are tolerated by the good-ol'-boys and especially doted upon by their wives and mothers. Black captures the Bernies to perfection, perhaps because Texan Linklater and his co-scriptwriter Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote about Bernie Tiede first for Texas Monthly, know them well, and know how (as the Coens likewise did in Fargo) to transcend the merely satiric for something more humane and interesting.