Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Double Feature! Sympathetic Murderers Edition: Bernie and God Bless America

Dark comedy is a hard line to walk, and very little of it is well done. Make it too gorey and you end up with your standard horror flick, make it too light and joyful and you lose the grimmer elements that make it thought-provoking in the first place.

In honor of my favorite holiday, I'm going to look at two stand-out films in this genre I recently watched back to back; Bernie and God Bless America. Perhaps it will give you some good ideas for something to watch tonight after the Trick or Treaters have gone to bed.

Image courtesy of Millenium Entertainment.
Bernie is based on a true story of a mild-mannered undertaker Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) living the small town of Carthage, TX, who is SO good, SO kind, that he finally cracks under the tyrannical demands of Marjorie Nugent, a disgruntled, selfish rich widow played brilliantly by Shirley MacLaine that Bernie is taking care of. The more he gives, the more she takes, until finally much to his horror he snaps and kills her. At this point, the plot really takes off as he goes to creative lengths to convince everyone in the town for almost a year that she is still alive.

The real Bernie Tiede with director Richard Linklater
What makes this film such a gem is way the story is told through the eyes of the town's residents. There are multiple cutbacks to them talking about Bernie and what kind of a person he is, and these people are a mixture of actual residents and actors. This creates a unique blend of mixing the movie's creative license with the actual people and story. It also features one of the best performances of Matthew McConaughey (who was born in Uvalde, TX, about seven hours outside of Carthage) as a straight-shootin' prosecutin' lawyer Danny Buck Davidson, who has his suspicions about Bernie from the start. Fun fact: his mom, Kay McConaughey, has a cameo as one of the townsfolk interviewed.

It's clear the actors did their homework, and the director as well as Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine were in touch with the real Bernie Tiede (see photo above, courtesy of Samuel Haun Photography). It's a singular tale about how people with even the best of intentions can completely lose it, but it doesn't necessarily make them bad people at heart. It makes you think about why people do what they do, and how motives aren't always what they seem.

Toby gives this title:

Image courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

God Bless America is much edgier, and doesn't pull any punches in regards to blood and gore. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the off-beat renaissance man known for everything from his distinctive character voice (e.g. Pain in Disney's Hercules) to Eliot Loudermilk in 1988's Scrooged, it is clear from this film he has a major axe to grind.

Frank, played by Joel Murray, is in your middle class suburban nightmare. He's divorced, has a self-absorbed brat of a daughter that doesn't love him, lives in a crappy apartment with terrible next-door neighbors, and on top of it all, he may be terminally ill. Desperate times call for desperate measures - and away we go.

The plot moves quickly - not much time to stop and chat when there's so many stupid people that need their just desserts. But the pacing does slow down enough to develop the relationship between Frank and Roxy, the equally jaded teen played by Tara Lynne Barr he happens to stumble upon. It has heartwarming elements in the sense that Frank finally gets at least a glimpse at the father/daughter dynamic he's always wanted before it is too late.

Without spoiling anything, it is refreshing the film ends in the only way that makes sense. There's no last-minute change of heart or regrets, which would've cheapened the tale overall. Frank and Roxy came in guns blazing and they go out the same way. There's a kind of defiant, heady charm to that attitude, but after the rush is over, there's not much left to chew on afterwards.

While it is great fun watching ignorant, shallow people get taken out (who hasn't had the urge to do some damage to the person that double-parks in an already crowded lot?), the film smacks of self-indulgence. The film was not made for us, but rather for Mr. Goldthwait, and while it is a fun ride, the sheer anger and resentment leaves the film with a hollow feel, and precious little substance.

Toby gives this title:

Toby sez:

Bottom line: if you're looking for a morbidly funny, thought-provoking tale, go with Bernie. If you're in the mood for thrill and sheer vengeance, go for God Bless America.

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