‘Bernie’ is Black, Black is ‘Bernie’

Trailers are the death of more movies than I can count. Whether it’s a comedy with all the funny lines given away in two minutes or a drama with the crucial twist thrown out there early, previews have the power to ruin a good flick just as they attract viewers to it. Many of my fellow film lovers have adopted a strict “no trailer” policy, closing their eyes and covering the ears before movies in the theater while actively avoiding them online. I’m far too weak to do it myself, but I wish I could.

If I were stronger, perhaps I would have enjoyed Richard Linklater’s latest Texas-set comedy Bernie a little more. Instead, I watched every preview flashed in front of me and thus got the gist of the quirky, truth-based tale before I sat down to fully engage with it. I was then impatient for events to unfold and disappointed once they did. Most of it was no one’s fault but my own.

The film is not without its charms – Linklater imbues Bernie with some uniquely funny visual touches, Jack Black pulls off an adequate transformation from the foul-mouthed screw-up he usually plays, and the blend of real-life characters with professional actors really works out well. Linklater plays around with his framing and introduces some lively (and random) animation to elevate the mood early on, and continues his experimentation throughout. It’s a fun, low-budget approach from a director known for trying new things – and succeeding.

The film, like most movies with the lead character’s name in the title, rests heavily on its lead’s shoulders. Thankfully, Black has the dramatic chops, for the most part, to carry the weight. There are certainly times, especially early on, when Black comes off as inauthentic. Bernie is just so overly friendly and kind he’s hard to take seriously. Eventually he wins you over, and Black’s bold choice (or genuine impersonation) to stick with the kind demeanor all the way through pays off in some emotionally challenging late scenes.

Mixing real-time events with reflexive people from Bernie’s real-life past was a truly brilliant touch from the veteran director. What really helped him pull it off were the wonderfully eccentric locals who provided enough colorful commentary to make Werner Herzog jealous. Perhaps just as impressive, though, is how Linklater blends them in with the actors. I couldn’t tell the difference (you know, except when Matthew McConaughey sits down in front of the camera), and that’s a testament to everyone involved.

If anything, the director is a little too fascinated with his subjects – the film drags on 15 minutes past its best stopping point and then misses its climax by the same amount of time. It’s nothing too intolerable, but it draws attention to one of the film’s more general flaws. The story itself isn’t quite perfect. Yes, it’s true. Yes, it’s a little odd. The finalé, however, leaves something to be desired even if it is true. It’s a small arc in a small movie about a small town – the timeline just needs to be more sharply focused.

The DVD, with a fancy foldout slipcover, comes with three featurettes and deleted scenes. It would have been nice to listen to Linklater’s commentary track during the movie, but it’s hard to complain when what’s included is so grand. Sure, the number of bonus features isn’t high, but the quality more than makes up for it.

There’s a six-minute segment focusing on Jack Black’s performance, complete with interviews of the cast and director as well as only a few choice clips from the film. Then there’s a nine-minute featurette on how the true story became a feature film. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s nice to know that most of the film was accurate, and there’s some trivia tidbits that prove to be worth hearing.

Finally, the gem of the extras is the 13-minute montage of audition tapes. No, this isn’t Jack Black or Matt McConaughey. It’s a handful of the citizens of Carthage talking about anything their hearts desire. You simply cannot get enough of these people, and it was a pleasant surprise to get an extra helping after the movie.

They also list “previews” as a bonus feature. Don’t hate me for skipping those, though. I was trying to be strong.

RATING 7 / 10