Your Funeral, My Trial
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Such has been the gravity of Jack Black’s recent crimes against cinema (Gulliver’s Travels, anyone?) that it’s often hard to remember that, when he’s got his game face on, he can be a pretty entertaining guy, and there was a time, not too long ago, when he was pretty much beloved by all and sundry. Luckily, he’s reteamed with his School of Rock director Richard Linklater to remind us.
            Black is Bernie Tiede, an assistant mortician in a small Texas town, and just about the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet. He’s so nice, he even forges a strong friendship with local rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an embittered old battleaxe with scarcely a kind word for anyone. Even Bernie has his breaking point, though, and one day he puts four bullets into the old bag’s back. The thing is, Bernie’s such a nice guy, no one blames him for the deed. She must have had it coming, the townsfolk reason, much to the consternation of politically ambitious District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey).
            It’s a true story, based on a 1998 article by screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, and Linklater has made the interesting choice to blur the line between documentary and feature film by interspersing the scripted re-enactments with interviews with the town residents who knew both the deceased and her murderer. The conceit works like a charm, not only adding to the film’s folksy, down-home appeal, but also serving to ground it in reality – once you meet the actual residents of Carthage, Texas, the extremes of behaviour exhibited by the professional cast don’t seem quite so far-fetched.
            Black gives a fun performance as the painfully sweet, irrepressibly camp Tiede. It’s both broad and nuanced, letting the inner conflict and loneliness show through the over the top affectations and prissy mannerisms. MacLaine enjoys herself as the hateful, shrewish Nugent, and McConaughey goes to the effort of injecting some internal life into a part that could have thrived solely on his good ol’ boy charm.
            The problem is that Bernie doesn’t add up to all that much, in the final analysis. It’s consistently enjoyable, albeit moreso in the first half than the last, and the fact that its shaggy dog story is rooted in actual events gives it a certain cachet, but Linklater doesn’t appear to be actually trying to say anything with the film. It’s strangely themeless; content to wallow in eccentricity without commenting on it. In his original article, Hollandsworth makes a direct comparison to the non-fiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; ironically enough, Bernier suffers from the same issues as that work’s film adaptation – it’s affable, but ultimately hollow.
            That affability just about carries it, though. For a film about senicide, Bernie is awfully big-hearted. It’s a warm and whimsical tale of murder, passion, and greed, and we don’t get too many of those. 
(First published in X-Press Issue 1331, 15/08/2012)

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