Stranger Than Fiction
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Echoing the quandary my great, great grandfather, Shmuel the Philosopher, voiced when he asked, “Who’s to say what’s real?” filmmaker Richard Linklater takes truth and reality as entertainment to a whole nother level in “Bernie.” Loosely based on the circumstances revolving around a 1996 murder in Carthage, Texas, it is oddly charming…very oddly.
Controversial from the get go, chances are the documentary style account wouldn’t be nearly as funny and engaging without Jack Black’s stellar performance as the title character. Meet Bernie Tiede, the stranger who rode into town, got a job as assistant funeral director and within a very short time became Carthage’s number one citizen.
A great early scene, wherein Bernie is the invited alumnus giving a demonstration to a mortuary class, offers us a peek into his persona, perhaps explaining the innate charm that has gained him such profound esteem in the community. He’s the everyman, the caring soul personified, whether overseeing a burial or championing a new wing for the church.
If the local players need someone to iron out the wrinkles in their latest production, heck, he can go one better by singing the lead role…proving himself a veritable Music Man in more ways than one. Yet of all his talents and accomplishments, the most amazing feat is when he wins the friendship of filthy rich, much hated town curmudgeon, Marge Nugent.
Portrayed to a T by Shirley Maclaine in a role she’s made her very own in recent years, no one likes Marge…not even her kin, most of whom have tried to sue her for wealth that isn’t coming to them either now or after her demise. She’s made that clear. But with Bernie it’s different. His dedication is transcending; he’s soon her constant companion.
But then something shocking occurs…an event so untoward that people just can’t digest it. All of which focuses the director’s ruminations on the prismatic fickleness of perception…a monograph on the subjectivity that decides what we embrace as the truth. Then, bumping up the stakes, the screenplay opines how that can affect our morality.
It’s told in flashback, after the facts we don’t know, unless you’re familiar with the 1998 “Texas Magazine” article originally written by Skip Hollandsworth. Mirroring the real life complications inherent to the tale, Mr. Linklater takes the very questionable liberty of mixing actors with interviews of actual denizens of the East Texas burg.
It’s the reality show transposed to the big screen, challenging the very concepts of fiction, truth and that great crucible of understanding that lies in-between: the gray area. While Confucian scholars might deem the dramatic interrogatory a no-brainer, for us Westerners the smile it forms on your mouth belies the furrows it puts on your forehead.
Most of the townsfolk like Bernie, as do we, thanks entirely to Mr. Black’s ingratiating portrayal. While it foretells a broader possibility of roles for the primarily comic actor, the tricky foray into black comedy brings us to an amusing dilemma— the ethical conundrum that beats at the heart of the film— though I won’t tell you exactly why.
Suffice it to note that Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck, the district attorney, never buys into the Super Bernie syndrome that transfixes Carthage. In fact, he’s rather suspect of the adopted favorite son. Also suffice it to note, he may or may not be vindicated when aforementioned events put the town on its ear and culminate in a cause celebre.
Working backwards to the big finale from a script he penned with writer Hollandsworth, director Linklater manages a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If you were to read it, it wouldn’t be half as enamoring as what results from the smorgasbord of down home colloquialisms his largely amateur cast uses to state their colorful points of view.
It’s a delirious panoply of ostensibly heartfelt verbiage, a lazy Susan of well-meant prejudices and assumptions skillfully juxtaposed with down-home wisdom and native intelligence. It’s part of why comedy can be such a great conveyor of truth… unshaded opinions told for what they are, delivered here as if auditioning to portray Will Rogers.
Which reminds me of a great tall-tale teller in college who, on the dorm fire escape during warm fall nights, told the most outlandish stories, all inevitably ending with him coaxing the dean’s daughter to an assignation. But we let him, because it was so much fun. You see, we’re being had a bit, or not, depending on how your antennae receive it.
A provocative exercise that’s the cinematic equivalent of a brain teaser or a magician’s conjuration, you can take its implicit challenge or allow yourself to enjoy it on face value. And because it’s so intriguing, especially in light of the specious smoke and mirrors its storytelling style employs, I’d be interested in knowing exactly which “Bernie” you see.
“Bernie,” rated PG-13, is a Millennium Entertainment release directed by Richard Linklater and stars Jack Black, Shirley Maclaine and the townspeople of Carthage, Texas. Running time: 104 minutes