Small Town, USA, has been the setting of so many films centred on the dubious nature of “know thy neighbour” that it’s nice to see one come along that feels fresh, despite still working well within the wheelhouse of contemporary cinema. Director Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles) has blended the mockumentary, the sun-kissed indie, the southern gothic, the Soderbergh farce, and the Jack Black (School of Rock) comedy into something wholly fun, quirky, and yet stinging in its darkness. It manages to feel unique and different despite looking unambitious upon initial glance. It’s funny too, which certainly helps, and is benefited immensely by a wonderful cast of big names and unknowns that help make this Linklater’s freshest film in quite some time.
Black stars as Bernie, a kind-hearted southern gentleman whose good-natured soul endears him to the Texan town he calls home. Bernie is a funeral parlour attendant, who works his fine art of making the deceased look the best they’ve ever looked. However, when the eternal bachelor Bernie becomes infatuated with a local widow (Shirley MacLaine, In Her Shoes) he sets forth a series of events that will shock the entire region and start a debate over the idea of morals and prejudices.
Written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth (no wonder Bernie sounds authentic, the co-writer’s name makes him sound like a relative of The Golden Girls’ Blanche Devereaux!), Bernie is both fiercely funny, and poignantly reflective. I couldn’t help but feel like it was a cross between Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble and The Informant, with its almost dim-witted charm blending perfectly with the more serious notions being addressed. The film uses fake documentary interviews scattered about throughout a more traditionally filmed narrative, ala Strictly Ballroom. It works, which is thankful since it could have gone so horribly off the rails.
Perhaps the reason it is able to stay so nicely on track is because of Jack Black’s performance. Another actor – ahem, Zach Galifiniakis in The Campaign – may have been tempted to turn this character into a caricature, but Black imbues with so much empathy and pathos that, despite the macabre series of events happening around him. It probably helps that Black has worked with Linklater before and they have a good working rapport. Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike) is also a treat, as are MacLaine and the gaggle of small-town folk (real actors, but you’d be forgiven for thinking Linklater had employed real residents) that populate the talking head interviews throughout. Bernie is small-scale, sure, but it is also a refreshing slice of comedic zest that manages to say some very dark thinks amidst the hilarity.
Bernie was released in Australia cinemas on Thursday August 16th
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brandon Smith, Rick Dial, Larry Jack Dotson, Jerry Biggs and Valerie Frazee.