Treats for the Soul
Richard Linklater reunites with his School of Rock star Jack Black, and provided the latter with what would probably be his best film role to date, without the need to go over the top in comedy, but having to rely on his dramatic acting, and great singing voice. Yes you read that right. Jack Black isn't always the comedian on film, and has a couple of more serious roles under his belt which usually are quite understated. Then there's his singing voice, put to good use here singing soulful renditions of hymns given the nature of the job role of his titular character.
What would transpire in the film would be larger than life instead, but in truth it's based on a real incident, about the circumstances behind a cold blooded murder that would be seen almost like a bade joke. No offence meant to the victim's relatives of course, as Bernie takes on what would be a docu-drama style, interviewing real people on their memory about the incident and their feelings toward Bernie Tiede, where in a small town community of Carthage, Texas, everyone presumably knows everyone else in consummate terms, truth, rumour or both.
Interspersed with these engaging talking head moments and interviews, are the fictional re-enactments of these scenes, or played out with drama or comedy just to make the presentation fresh despite having a documentary-like feel. And you have to salute Linklater's ability to extract plenty of honest emotions especially when talking about people the interviewees dislike, and to do so on camera. I would have rooted for more because these moments in the film made it what it is, and is akin to neighbourhood gossipy moments where one listens in to hear the latest on what goes on, only that we cannot add our two cents worth since it's not interactive.
Jack Black's Bernie is a character with good intentions. Trained as a mortician, and then becoming assistant funeral director, we learn a lot about his background given the focus on his early days in the profession. Linklater went for the morbid jugular with having Bernie dress up a corpse as an introduction to what he does, through an instructional session given to students, providing plenty of insights on the process that I didn't know about. He's good natured, from what we see and hear, until something within him snapped when he got a wee bit too friendly with town grouch Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) who coincidentally is one of the richest widows around.
The film doesn't go all out to paint Bernie as a gold digger, but I suppose he lived long enough to see himself become the villain, especially so when Marjorie's reach becomes all encompassing and stifling, monitoring every move Bernie makes, coupled with unreasonable demands that makes PMS handling look like a walk in the park. Shirley MacLaine plays this role to perfection, so much so that you'll grow to hate her, and maybe it's Linklater's intent to make the viewer sympathize and throw in support at Bernie's corner. MacLaine nails the irritating nature of the character, complete with passive-aggressive behaviour that makes claws on chalkboard more tolerable, and to watch her acting cute, just sends shivers.
While Matthew McConaugney probably overdid his Southern Drawl as the district attorney keen to nail Bernie and get to the truth, his hamming it up served as one of the highlights of the film, as do the real talking heads interviews conducted to give us all a little bit of a reality check of a very skewed modern day Robin Hood of sorts. Recommended for its unique perspective and presentation, and for those who are interested to see the original article that inspired the movie, you can read it here.