Whenever a movie claims to be “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events,” I am a little skeptical. The movie industry is a little free and loose with these words, to the point where they don’t mean much of anything. While there may be a germ of reality in these films, it is often unclear how much has been changed and what facts have been altered for the sake of storytelling. So I tend to take the proclamation with a grain of salt. After all, when it was first released the horror movie Hostel claimed to be inspired by true events. As someone who has stayed in an Eastern European hostel, I can assure you that the film was not inspired by what an actual hostel looks like. I would have taken my chances with a psycho killer for accommodations that were so luxurious.
So when I sat down to watch the dark comedy Bernie the other night and it claimed to be based on a real story, I had my doubts. I really didn’t know much of anything about the film other than the fact that it stared Jack Black and had received a lot of positive buzz from critics and websites that I respect and trust. My instinct was to pause the movie and investigate this claim, but I didn’t want to ruin the story by digging into how authentic it actually was. This is the downside of watching a film at home with your laptop inches away; it is tempting to use the technology to supplement your movie experience. So I resisted the urge to Google the facts. I decided to just let the film take me where it wanted and I would do my research later.
I’m glad that I decided to give Bernie my full and undivided attention, as it wound up being a wonderfully dark and charming movie. I enjoyed it immensely and when I did finally look into the actual case, I was further delighted to find that the bizarre scenes that I had just watch unfold was actually very close to what happened in reality.
Bernie takes place in the small Texas town of Carthage. Bernie (Jack Black), the local assistant funeral director, has utterly charmed the entire community since he arrived in town with his sweet nature and nice disposition. He goes above and beyond in his kindness to people and is generally beloved. When he befriends the recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), it raises more than a few eyebrows as Nugent is twice his age and notoriously the meanest woman in town. He becomes her constant companion and together they travel the world, all on Nugent’s dime. Bernie’s ambivalent sexuality only serves to increase the tongue wagging in town – are they romantically involved? Bernie is given full access to Marjorie’s bank account and lavishes her money on the people of Carthage, buying cars for those in need, providing seed money for a local business and making a substantial donation to the local church for a much needed addition.
And then things get even weirder. But to say more would ruin some of the fun of the movie.
Jack Black is not known for his subtle performances, but he gives the best performance of his career as Bernie. He is restrained and the usual Jack Black goofiness and over exuberance are absent. He is still funny and amusing when needed, but without the usual shenanigans. Who knew that Jack Black could really act? He portrays Bernie as a real person (quirks and all) without turning him into a cartoon character. There is a nuance to this performance that is very compelling to watch.
Shirley MacLaine is awesome as usual and plays the nasty Marjorie with similar restraint. Marjorie may not be a very nice person, but she is a person; MacLaine gives her a humanity that she might not have in the hands of another actress. It is a low key performance, but it is tremendously effective. The niece of the real Marjorie said that MacLaine had her Aunt down to a T, which is really the highest praise that you can give an actor playing a real person.
Matthew McConaughey also turns in a strong performance in a supporting role as Danny Buck. McConaughey is capable of some really solid work when he’s in the right roles and this is one of them. His natural good looks are downplayed and though his character is a minor player compared to Black and MacLaine, he is able to establish who Danny Buck is in just a few scenes. McConaughey is re-teamed with his Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater and theirs proves to be a fruitful collaboration. There should be more roles like this and less where he is teamed with Kate Hudson.
I also got a kick out of the talking head segments with the local townspeople who add a nice Texas charm to the movie; turns out that a lot of those people were actual Carthage residents who were Bernie’s friends and neighbors. It adds some nice authenticity to the film. McConaughey’s mom has a bit role as one of the residents; it is clear that family has a good gene pool.
Bernie was a pleasant surprise and one of my favorite movies that I’ve seen this year. I now look at Jack Black in a whole new way and realize he is capable of more range than I would have ever anticipated. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and Bernie seems to prove that rule. In some ways it reminds me of the documentary Tabloid, another film I recommend, in that it is hard to believe that what you are watching actual happened. This isn’t a laugh out loud comedy – I’m not even sure comedy is the right place to categorize it – but it was a delight to watch. I’d definitely recommend seeking it out; the film has just been released on DVD, but because it is a smaller film it is also just making the rounds of some art house theater (it just opened here in Albany). Whatever the venue, go see this movie. Hopefully you will enjoy it as much as I did.
If you are interested in reading the Texas Monthly article that helped inspired the movie, you can find it here. But I recommend not doing so until after you have seen the film.