The 73rd Virgin says... If Jack Black doesn't get nominated as Best Actor there is no justice. I'm sad to see this premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2011 and premiered in England before the U.S. Don't know if this affects it's Oscar status or not.
I haven't read the Texas Monthly article on which this is based. In Austin-based Richard Linklater's hands it captures the insular but knowing Texas voice of the magazine in general.
An oil wildcatter's wealthy widow in the deep east Texas town of Carthage takes up with one of the town's leading citizens; a slightly effeminate but charming, thoughtful, religious, and talented mortician. Bernie Tiede is chubby with the monochromatic black hair of a home dye job. But he takes his job seriously, sings like an angel at funerals and at church, takes the lead in community theater, coaches Little League, checks up on lonely widows including Mrs. Nugent, and is just a great guy to be around.
In the faux-documentary style of "Reds", but twice as interestingly, Linklater opens with a series of Carthage residents facing the camera and giving their opinions on the town, Texas, Bernie, Mrs. Nugent, and a half-dozen other topics. These are actors, a few of them recognizable, but they are obviously from here and they set the tone of love and acceptance that the town has toward Bernie. Most know he is probably gay, but give no indication of caring much.
The funniest intro is provided by a man who describes the five parts of Texas with the assistance of an on-screen powerpoint graphic with, "the snobs up in Dallas" and Houston, "the carcinogenic coast", and San Antonio where, "the Tex meets the Mex", "the Peoples' Republic of Austin", and especially Carthage, "behind the pine curtain", etc. There is also a funny juxtaposition of the town's Chamber of Commerce spokesperson showing that Carthage is one of the top 5 small towns in America and the next townsperson opining that "most people live in Carthage because they were born here". The townspeople will continue to pop up throughout.
Matthew McConaughey is a minor distraction as the publicity-loving county DA Danny Buck. Maybe I'm just not a fan, although his work in Linklater's Dazed and Confused was perfect, and I'm in the minority in thinking that "Reign of Fire" was pretty good. But I was distracted here by his almost yellow face make-up. I'm not sure if that was intentional to show that this DA uses face paint for media appearances or if no one in production noticed how weird he looked. But, as I say, this is minor and maybe I just didn't get the joke. Shirley MacLaine is fine as widow Marjorie Nugent, but any number of elderly actresses could have played the role. She plays it with the sagging, spotty arms of an 81 year-old but her legs look oddly photoshopped or air-brushed. I know she was a dancer but still...
Black is great throughout. In the final scene as he walks away from the camera we get the only hint of broad comedy in how Bernie carries himself. Otherwise, I dare you to find a second where Black injects any hint of ironic distance or caricature. He plays a joyful man who needs a great deal of approval and love, but gives back as much as he receives. Most Hollywood comedies would have no idea with what to do with this character. Most Hollywood actors would have had to give us one wink to show that they're really NOT a gay east Texas mortician but Black never does.
In another hilarious juxtaposition, after Bernie has done the deed that drives the narrative, he prays to God for guidance on what to do next and we jump to his rehearsal for "The Music Man" at the community theater. Black is singing and dancing for real and is obviously out of breath as he finishes the scene just like any chubby community theater star would be. "I laughed til I criedTM".
Over the end credits, we see photos of the real Mrs. Nugent with the real Bernie and a final photo of Bernie in prison talking to Black. It is strangely triumphant.
I assume Linklater is just another run-of-the-mill Austin liberal but I've liked everything he's ever done, except "Before Sunset", and I'm not penciling in his “Bad News Bears” any time soon. This feels like a love letter to his Texas, but it's funny enough for anyone from anywhere. See it before it's gone.
Here's the preview.