Friday, May 4, 2012
In a nation that gets more homogenized every day, Texas still feels, as its ad slogan says, “like a whole other country.” That’s partly because of a commitment to individualism that runs so deep it almost amounts to a cult of personality, though it’s a cult with many leaders: Texans celebrate just about any personality big enough to step forward and declare itself. It’s also because of the metaphor-studded, pomposity-puncturing, laugh-out-loud richness of the language. A true Texan, like a prototypical Irishman, can turn almost anything into a good story.
When I talked to him last week for The L Magazine, writer-director Richard Linklater called Bernie “the most purely Texas thing I’ve ever done.” It’s also the purest slice of Texas I’ve seen onscreen since Friday Night Lights, and the funniest since … well, maybe ever. Come to think of it, there aren’t a lot of funny movies about Texas.
What makes Bernie so entertaining, and so truly Texan, is the unlikely character at the center of the story and the torrent of talk that surrounds him as a juicy cross-section of his townspeople comment on his story. Linklater’s script closely tracks a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth about Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a gregarious assistant funeral director in the cosy East Texas town of Carthage. Everyone in Carthage loves Bernie and Bernie loves everyone in Carthage, so, in classic Texas cult-of-personality fashion, everyone’s pretty much fine with anything he does.
One of the sections into which the film is divided, like subheads in a magazine feature, is titled: Was Bernie Gay? The question seems inevitable, given his effeminate manner, artistic leanings, and exclusive attentiveness to the town’s “DLOLs, or dear little old ladies,” as one of the commentators calls them—particularly the icy Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), of whom one of the townspeople says: “Her nose was so high she’d drown in a rainstorm.”
So was Bernie gay? Yes, Maybe, Probably, Who knows? say the townspeople. Ultimately, they all agree on one thing: Who he sleeps with (or doesn’t) is none of their business. But just as you’re starting to feel all warm and fuzzy about these fine folks’ loyalty and open-mindedness, the story takes a sharp left turn, meandering into territory so weird it feels almost surreal.
Pushed too far by Mrs. Nugent’s escalating demands, Bernie snaps one day and kills her. It takes a few weeks before anyone catches on, since nobody but her stockbroker misses her, but the case eventually comes to trial—in another town, since the DA is convinced that nobody in Carthage would vote to convict their beloved Bernie. As Bernie’s lawyer notes, he’s been a trial lawyer for decades, and this is the first time he ever heard of a trial being moved because the jury pool was too favorably inclined toward the defendant.
The three main actors—Black, MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey, who plays the grandstanding DA—are all inveterate scene-chompers, but Linklater gets mercifully subdued performances from all three, and their only slightly exaggerated naturalism serves the script’s reality-based absurdity well. But the best part of Bernie is the colorful language with which the gossips embroider this stranger-than-fiction story.
If he lived in Ohio, laconic Lonnie (Sonny Carl Davis) might have just said the people in the town where Bernie’s trial was held weren’t very well educated. Instead, he says: “They got more tattoos than teeth and there ain’t a brain amongst the whole dozen of ‘em, and they’re supposed to decide something like this? I mean, hell, I wouldn't let ‘em work on my car.”
Written for TimeOff