Most movies are just set in some generic city, and it proves merely a bland backdrop for the story. Sometimes, though, a filmmaker finds a special affection for a city, a state, or a country, and the setting becomes a character in the movie. Lucky New Yorkers have been lavished with movies celebrating their magical city thanks to Woody Allen and all his proteges, and Allen gave Europeans one of the all-time best city characters with his recent “Midnight in Paris.”
Richard Linklater, a fellow Houstonian, has created his own “Midnight in Paris” with “Bernie,” a true crime flick with a documentary angle set deep in the heart of Texas. Granted, no one would ever mistake Carthage, Texas for Paris, France. But just as Allen acquaints us with the architecture, the culture, and the rich history of Paris, Linklater gives us a taste of small-town Texas with pinpoint accuracy.
For once, my beloved state isn’t the butt of the joke, mocked by caricature, or stereotyped into a mythical land where cowboys ride their horse to work. (As I like to remind everyone, we have three of the ten most populous cities in the United States!) It’s a tender and nuanced portrayal of a tiny community rocked by a scandal beyond their wildest imaginations.
To further enhance the portrayal of Carthage, Linklater actually brings in the real townspeople of Carthage to help provide some of the information on the city, the events, and the major players in the story. It’s a risky move as the psuedo-documentary angle has been misused and driven into kitsch territory by many lackluster filmmakers, but it pays off in spades for “Bernie.” It further reminds us of the gossipy, in-your-business nature of small town America and convinces us that Linklater truly respects the town and knows that no one else BUT them could possibly tell the tale any better. Their keen observations and judgements scattered throughout the film provide the best laughs and the deepest insights.
That’s not to say that Jack Black isn’t funny though. In his best non-Panda role since his last film with Linklater, “The School of Rock,” Black excels comedically and dramatically in a role he seems meant to play. As assistant mortician Bernie Tiede, the ambiguously gay jack-of-all-trades in Carthage, Black tones down his out-of-control physicality and proves better than ever. He puts up one heck of a facade for Bernie and then leaves us baffled as to what kind of machinations are going on inside his head.
Like, what on earth compels him to be so nice to everyone in Carthage? Why does he befriend the nastiest, richest widow (Shirley MacLaine) in town? How can he tolerate her when she basically makes him a live-in servant for her? And finally, how could he have shot her? The final question still baffles the town today as seen by their support for the man but shock for the crime. Their ambivalence towards murder ultimately forces District Attorney Danny Buck, played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey in a role where both he and the audience can fully embrace his Texan pride, to move the trial to nearby San Augustine.
If you know East Texas (or Texas in general), you’ll be nodding in agreement along with every laugh. If you don’t know East Texas, this won’t exactly inspire you to come visit, but you’ll come away with an appreciation for the smaller part of my giant state. In other words, whether you’re a Texan, a Yankee, or even from outside of the United States, you have to see “Bernie.” A- /