Stranger Than Fiction, by Jack Fleischer
More often than not, when you see a movie that’s been “ripped from the headlines” you get a melodrama. In the case of Bernie you get a cute flick with touches of over the top goofy. Starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine, and a slew of Texas townies, this film manages to be funny, endearing, and even a little bit inspired.
When “Bernie” (Jack Black) comes to settle into a small east Texas town, he’s an instant hit. The townspeople love him; his funeral director boss loves him. Even the grumpiest scrooge in town (MacLaine) grows to love him. But when cracks appear in the relationship between the man everyone in town loves, and the woman everyone in town hates, crazy things happen.
Bernie owes much of its style to a TV shows like Dateline NBC, than to a dramatic true-life crime films like In Cold Blood. Part of that is the result of the subject matter. Without revealing too much, this is a genuinely anecdotal example of the truth being stranger than fiction. Using a combination of dramatic reenactments focusing on our three lead actors, and documentary style talking head interviews with a chorus of “local” residents, this film has that nighttime newsmagazine feel.
Truly, it’s the interview subjects that make this film. Director/co-writer Richard Linklater (Slackers, Dazed and Confused), has once again tried to throw a gentle spotlight on his Lone Star heritage by casting a bunch of native Texan actors in these roles. He genuinely seems to care about these people, and it shows through in his choice of material, and their portrayal. They are blunt and forthright, and it’s this earnest nature that’s the source of a lot of the film’s comedy.
Jack Black and McConaughey seem out of place here at first, and are possibly even distracting. Black seems to be struggling to keep his true personality in a box, and part of me thought I was watching “Wooderson” do an impression of Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. MacLaine on the other hand is much less distracting. Eventually I rationalized that Linklater was trying emphasize the over the top/fictional nature of the standard true-crime “reenactment.” I’m not sure if I fully believe my interpretation, but I will say that I loved the supporting cast so much that I am willing to rationalize (overlook?) the performances from these leads. One of the things I can say with surprising sincerity is that I was once again reminded that Black is able to sing.
In reality this is a short story, but the movie never drags, and I may even be forced to call it cute. This flick is absolutely worth matinee movie prices, and it may be one of the few true crime murder movies I’d recommend watching with your family.
Make sure to stay all the way through the credits, not only so that you can acknowledge an appreciate all the members of the film’s supporting cast, but you’ll also get a glimpse at the real life Bernie, not to mention some bonus interviews. Perhaps Bernie is not an instant classic, but I still think most people will enjoy it.