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“Bernie”: Is Jack Black Back?

May 15, 2012

Jack Black is a man of many talents: actor, singer, owner of the most expressive eyebrows this side of Jack Nicholson. But he’s been testing the patience of his fans for years now. Aside from his delightful voice work as Po in the Kung Fu Panda films, he’s turned out one turkey after another, from the inexplicably popular Tropic Thunder and the unwatchable Year One to the massive flop Gulliver’s Travels and the bird-brained The Big Year. Now he’s wisely reunited with Richard Linklater—the director of his breakout smash The School of Rock—for Bernie, a true-crime docudramedy that features Black’s best performance ever. Or at least since Nacho Libre. (I am not joking—that movie is seriously underrated.)

Black brings all his skills to bear as Bernie Tiede, a charming small-town Texas mortician who murders his hatefully bitter sugar mama (Shirley MacLaine, also doing her strongest work in ages), then puts her on ice—literally. (For more on this bizarre case, check out this fascinating New York Times Magazine article by my friend Joe Rhodes, whose aunt was the real-life victim!) When he’s finally caught nine months later, his neighbors rally to his defense, much to the chagrin of the local DA (Matthew McConaughey—more on him in a minute).

In the tradition of Warren Beatty’s Reds, Linklater cleverly intercuts testimonials from the actual residents of Carthage, Texas. I’m tempted to call this movie Rednecks, but Linklater (a native Texan) never condescends to his “characters.” That includes Bernie, whom Black embodies in an achingly subtle tour de force, if that’s not an oxymoron. He doesn’t overplay Bernie’s effeminacy, and he manages to keep his many singing scenes (including a community-theater production of The Music Man) from crossing into camp.

Now, back to McConaughey: He also seems creatively redeemed by reuniting with Linklater, who first channeled his inner sleaze in 1993’s Dazed and Confused. His DA, Danny Buck, uses his aw-shucks demeanor to mask the media-savvy shark beneath. After coasting on his dimples and his six-pack for far too long, McConaughey’s in the midst of a major career renaissance, beginning with last year’s criminally good The Lincoln Lawyer and hopefully extending to his upcoming roles in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and opposite Woody Harrelson in the HBO anthology True Detective. (I’m more skeptical of his part as a male stripper in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.)

I loved Bernie so much, I’m hoping for a sequel: Black breaks out of jail, defrosts MacLaine and takes her corpse out on the town. Weekend at Bernie’s III, anyone?

What’s your favorite Jack Black flick? Care to defend Shallow Hal or King Kong?

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15 Comments
  1. TV Gord permalink

    I’m so happy to read this review! I’ve been waiting for this movie to open where I live!

    • bruceafretts permalink

      I hope it will go wider soon. I think you’ll love it, and so will a lot of other people.

  2. Teme permalink

    I wasn’t interested in Bernie before reading this, but I am now. Ditto Nacho Libre. Napoleon Dynamite is one of my all time favorites, but for some reason, I never gave Nacho Libre a chance. The School of Rock – definitely favorite Jack Black movie so far. (For some reason, Matthew McConaughey movies are really good for migraines.)

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Maybe I was just in the right mood for Nacho Libre–I saw it with my son, who was a preteen at the time, and we both laughed a lot. But I caught a bit of it on cable recently and it still holds up.

  3. Teme permalink

    Sounds good. There are some movies I saw with my kids when they were little and I think back and wonder if I would have enjoyed the experience as much if I hadn’t had the joy of their laughter and appreciation along with it. Surf Ninjas!

  4. Thanks for putting this on my radar. I love the cast, and as the son of a former funeral director, well, there’s that . . . 😉

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