Ah, LAFF opening night. More or less settled in to its LA Live homebase in its second year there (I mean, I was able to pick up my pass, get into the screening and transition to the afterparty completely painlessly, which is some kind of victory), our city's namesake film festival rolled the dice by opening with the previously unseen latest film from the recently uneven Austin auteur Richard Linklater.
Yes, Bernie guaranteed a magnetic red carpet, thanks to stars Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley Maclaine. But did the film itself deserve such a high-profile berth?
In a word: yeah. To add four more words: I mean, pretty much.
Bernie — based on the true crime story of Bernie Tiede, initially turned narrative by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth in a story for Texas Monthly — stars Black as a mortician much beloved by the aged populace of his tiny East Texas town; MacClaine as Mrs. Nugent, the widow with whom he develops a mysterious friendship; and McConaughey, nerded out in glasses and limp, graying hair, as the district attorney hoping to convict the former for the murder of the latter.
The narrative is told half through dramatization, and half through talking head interviews with actors playing townies, who testify to Bernie's total likability, as well as to Mrs. Nugent's tyranny. It's something like Christopher Guest doing Errol Morris doing a real-life Fargo, with a highly detailed feel for the idiosyncratic demographic make-up and prevailing vibe of small-town Texas that only a native son like Linkater could provide.
Linklater may have been born to make this movie, but it couldn't be more different than his greatest hits, such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Waking Life. Classic Linklater films present life unraveling in front of the camera and force the viewer to sort through layers of unspoken connection and subtext.
Comparatively, Bernie is relatively straightforward — in fact, it sometimes hammers home its points a little too hard. But from section to section within the film, its ability to pull off total tonal shifts is remarkable. What appears at first to be a standard story of a shifty younger guy manipulating a lonely older woman turns out to be anything but.
I could do without Black's tendency to allow his portrayal of Bernie to slip into walking gay caricature (literally, in the film's final scene), but for the most part, the three leads give fully committed, highly unusual performances that are alone worth the price of admission. And, can I just say, that between this and The Lincoln Lawyer, I'm absolutely loving pushing-middle-aged Matthew McConaughey? He's put the abs away, and let the actor he's kept submerged since the beginning of his career out to play.