Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Richard Linklater's BERNIE hits a high mark for the year. Hell, even Texas looks good!

How good is BERNIE, the new film from a fellow who is certainly up there with the best of our American movie-makers: Richard Linklater? Let's put it another way. How good is Jack Black at his best? Or: Can you imagine Mathew McConaughey giving a scaled-down, crisp, smart and somehow non-showy performance? Further: Could any living filmmaker (this one is shown below) make Shirley MacLaine fit seamlessly into all of this? And finally, knowing TrustMovies' penchant for Texas-hating (well, he learned it from dem damn movies: Incendiary, Into the Abyss, Texas Killing Fields and on and on!), how could a film that features this state and its denizens seem to be taking place in a little slice of heaven? (Granted, it's set in East Texas. But still...) Bernie manages all of this and more. Yes, it's that good.

Where to start? With Mr. Black, below, who tops anything he's done so far, and that is saying plenty. He takes an unusual character and makes him live and breathe and, while seeming immediate and very real, also seems always to be just slightly mysterious. Maybe too good to be true. But then, maybe not. It's hard to pin down the magic this actor achieves. If a nomination is not already in the works, for god sake, get a campaign going. Black makes Bernie (the man and the movie) funny, of course, but also honest and kind and odd and happy (and gay) and just a tad frightening. As I say (and Doris Day once sang), it's magic. And when at last we see the real Bernie, briefly at movie's end, the performance seems even more truthful and special.

Much credit -- reams, tons -- must go to Mr. Linklater, who does something so effortlessly sophisticated and charming that he has reeled you in before you quite know you're hooked. He uses narration about as well (and as much) as I've seen done in any movie and couples it so cleverly into his living narrative, moving back and forth with such ease and delight, that we can only follow along. Title cards, witty and loving, appear with some regularity, too. "Loving" actually hits it dead-on, I think. This is perhaps as loving a film -- about a place and the people in it -- as I can recall. And yet it never gushes or moons. It keeps its irony going strong but, still, love conquers all.

You'll notice that I am going nowhere near the plot. Nor will I. You need to approach this film knowing as little about it as possible, then letting Linklater's wonderful scenario creep up and wash over you. What happens (and how) is such surprising, frisky fun that to know too much is to experience a spoiler a minute. (Those of you who've read the article that appeared in the The New York Times Magazine two weeks ago, be warned: The friend who attended the screening with me and had read it said that it did indeed dampen his enthusiasm somewhat by giving away too much. So read the article, sure, but after you see the film.)

Back to Black. The actor sings, he dances, he romances (courtly and non-sexual, of course), and he does all this so well. Not like the wailing award-winners on those sappy TV programs, but simply and professionally. Watching the scene from Bernie's production of The Music Man is like watching a really good production of a high school musical. You understand how important Bernie is to these kids -- and to the whole town. Ditto his work with Little Leaguers (above).

I don't know that anyone intentionally meant it this way, but Black's performance and Linklater's fine work stand as a paean to the closeted, southern gay man and what he's had to do to win the community's heart and mind (Bernie does). We see how he does it all, but not so much the why. We get little of Bernie's background, so character, not to mention the whole truth, remains mysterious. Which, I think, is the way it should be. Actions, after all, count for nearly everything. In the end, this stands as one of the important morals of the movie.

Though every last tiny role is brought to life beautifully, there are really only three of note in the movie: Black's, MacLaine's and McConaughey's. If it's Black's movie, the support he gets from the other two help make it so. MacLaine, at left, is on-screen very little, but not a moment with her is wasted. For awhile it seems that Bernie has gotten through to her character, but no: She soon goes back to her former self. In life, most of us do not change. We can maybe lessen our worse qualities and try a little harder. But few of us become drastically different.

McConaughey, above, is usually a showy actor (The Lincoln Lawyer), and he's good at it and lots of fun, too. Here, he's much less sexy than usual. Looking studious and serious behind glasses, he does not even appear to be Matthew McConaughey, initially. But self-love, kept cleverly and ironically at a discrete distance, permeates his character, and the actor does a bang-up job of giving his law officer everything he needs to succeed.

Other than these three pros, the movie's ace-in-the-hole are its townspeople whom Linklater brings to life with exactly the right amount of time and a wonderfully light touch. I tried to watch carefully as the end credits rolled to see if they were credited as being the actual townspeople, but I saw no mention of this. David Denby, in his review in The New Yorker, says they were. All the more reason then, to treasure this film -- which blends truth and its fictional cousin to a fare-thee-well, as near perfectly as any movie-maker has so far managed.

Bernie may remind you of of the work of Errol Morris, particularly his recent Tabloid, though Mr. Morris enjoys making fun of his subjects more, I think, than does Mr. Linklater, who tends to identify with them. If the noted documentarian were to make another narrative film (his Dark Wind didn't work too well), it might look something like this one -- 104 minutes, from Millennium Entertainment -- which opens Friday, April 27, at, I hope, a theater near you. In New York, it's opening exclusively at the Angelika Film Center. Elsewhere? I don't know. Maybe the movie's web site will eventually post playdates, cities and theaters. (That would be helpful, Millennium....)

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