Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Death is in the air

Bernie: directed by Richard Linklater

A few thoughts on Bernie and why I like it but do not love it....

 In Bernie Jack Black plays a mortician. Except, no one uses the word mortician anymore (he glibly points out) so he is a funeral director. Well, assistant funeral director – but, really – who’s splitting hairs? Bernie, for reasons unbeknownst to us, is not just efficient at his job but meticulously concerned with the minutiae of accomplishing a truly flawless funeral and burial for the dead. This attention to detail, though dimly peculiar, to the people in the town he inhabits is not an issue simply because Bernie’s natural disposition is as careful outside of the funeral home. His convivial nature is one which ensures the happiness of those around him. So, the essentially cheerfully genial Bernie strikes up a “relationship” with a widow who recently required his services.
Bernie is not a character study, but instead unfolds like a documentary. It’s hardly an unlikely decision considering that the tale is, indeed, based on a true story. Writer and director Richard Linklater uses the mockumentary format as our window into the story as the chronological story of Bernie and his (maybe) paramour is interspersed with interviews with the townspeople commenting on a looming horror we only learn of in actuality sometime into the film. It’s a fine idea and one which mostly works. Bernie is the tale of a crime that to some degree seems more bizarre than horrific, a crime perpetrated by a man more pathetic than fearsome. It’s an ingenious decision on Linklater’s part, then, to subvert audience notion by making neither a thriller nor a melodrama of the scenario but an oftentimes biting comedic look at life in a small town.

 And, for the most part, Bernie succeeds in that respect. The glimpse of the small-town it provides us with is sharp and humorous while never being cynical. At the centre Jack Black’s simultaneously charismatic and bizarre performance is an incredible to the shenanigans around him. Flanking him, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey are given less to do, asked to play more vignettes than actual people. MacLaine succeeds with simply a glare in transmitting all the arrogance, strength and callousness of a small-town Grand Dame and McConaughey’s ability to produce impressive line-readings is on full display. The film is uniformly well performed, but it begins to peter out as it begins to near its end. Or more accurately, as it nears the end I become more aware of the things I do not care for. It’s a case where I feel the film’s reach exceeds its grasp. The concept of making this macabre incident a humorous one is ingenious but sustaining the humour overtime becomes problematic even with the distance the framing device hopes to put between the audience and the characters.

 There are thus, two consequences as a result – not so much problems as they are (personal) issues. The film leaves us with more questions than answers which in itself is not an especially legitimate criticism but an issue which gives me pause when the film ends with that long walk of Bernie’s down the hall. That final shot before the credits belies a film with a firmer grasp on its character’s sensibilities and inclinations which the film for all its wit doesn’t quite delve into. This segues into the second issue which is a product of the film’s style itself. Because of the faux-documentary style the film is effectively unable to rid itself of the superficiality than an outside perspective looking in would engender. Not only do we not KNOW Bernie well (even as Jack imbues him with all those lovely nuances) we leave the film feeling as if we haven’t truly learned the facts of the incident either. Leaving us with a lovely glimpse that is still only a glimpse. It sort of reminds me of a Sondheim lyric (what doesn’t, though) – “my window pane has a lovely view, an inch of sky and a fly or two”. Let me explain – the cloudy window, the film, allows only a glimpse of an inch of sky, and that inch is impeccably mounted, but it’s not completely it’s not whole it’s not fulfilling. But what it is IS nice. I’m content.

 This Is Nice Isn’t / B-


Colin Biggs said...

Mockumentaries usually suffer from that same problem time and time again. It tries to offer a peek into character, but it leaves too much out.

Paolo said...

I thought MacLaine did enough to defend her character. There's this tone of longing to her voice, but I guess that's the part of me that sympathizes with 'nagging' female characters e.g. Susan Kane, Edo's GF in TSN (Christy).