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From SXSW to Your Local Theater, Part 2: Bernie

Written by , published March 19, 2012

In my previous post, I mentioned lucking into an added screening preview of the Will Ferrell comedy Casa de mi Padre.  Here, I’ll describe my experience at the red-carpet premiere of Bernie, at the Paramount Theatre.

Bernie is another made-in-TX film from director Richard Linklater and stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Based on a true story (written by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly) about a bizarre murder in Carthage, I found this self-described dark comedy more funny than bleak, and gives humorous but good-natured insight into the mores of small-town life.  The film was shot in Bastrop, Smithville, Austin, Georgetown, and Carthage.

Linklater, McConaughey, Black and some of the other actors were on hand for red carpet interviews and photos ops as well as the screening. This was my first time at a full-blown movie premiere, but as expected, there was plenty of crowd frenzy and tight security keeping people away from the stars and from spilling into the street.  When I arrived an hour before the screening, the lines had stretched well past the corner.  But somehow, everyone seemed to get in, as witnessed by a scattering of empty seats in the balcony.

Jack Black at the SXSW Red Carpet premiere of "Bernie."

The premiere had an air of homecoming of sorts for Linklater and McConaughey, whose mother, Kay is also in the film and in attendance. More than a handful of local Central Texans appear in the film and it was refreshing to see “real folks” mingling with the stars in the lobby. I was touched to see both Linklater and McConaughey warmly hugging and greeting Flo, one of the Paramount’s longtime ushers.

Matthew McConaughey walks the Red Carpet.

In the film, Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director and beloved member of the community in the East Texas town of Carthage. Bernie has a penchant for providing companionship to the town’s rich widows, and MacLaine’s character, Marjorie Nugent, is the wealthiest and meanest of them all. Through Bernie’s tenacity, he wins Marjorie over with tickets to a Van Cliburn concert in Fort Worth, and they soon begin spending much time and Marjorie’s money together. Marjorie is so taken with Bernie that she signs over power of attorney and wills her fortune to Bernie, despite protests from her tight-fisted accountant (hilariously played by Richard Robichaux, also a Texan, born in Channelview). Marjorie becomes possessive and controlling, and keeps Bernie on a tight leash. Frustrated, Bernie inadvertently snaps and kills Marjorie with her gun. Panic-stricken, Bernie does what “any funeral director would do” with the body. In the meantime, he tells everyone, including her Marjorie’s family that she suffered a stroke and is convalescing out-of-town. As power of attorney, he uses Marjorie’s money to boost the coffers of the town’s college, churches, and police force. The accountant, Marjorie’s family and the D.A., played by McConaughey, soon become suspicious. Bernie is forced to open Marjorie’s home to be searched, and the body is discovered in a shocking state in the freezer. Bernie is arrested, but the town is in disbelief that he would do such a thing. The trial is moved south to San Augustine, yet the Carthage community still stands by their man.

I thoroughly enjoyed Linklater’s tongue-in-cheek, unmocking portrayal of small-town Texas. Black’s performance was brilliant, and is the most fully-realized character he’s played to date. McConaughey’s character role was understatedly deadpan and well-played.  MacLaine continues to shine in her versatile performance.

Along with another Texas film, Trash Dance, Bernie won a SXSW Special Award at the SXSW 2012 Film Awards. Bernie is scheduled for limited release April 27.  In the Q&A following the film, Linklater mentioned he hopes the movie will make it into small town theaters.

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