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updated: 5/17/2012 10:50 AM

Too much is too much in crime-inspired 'Bernie'

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  • The publicly despised and wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) enjoys the company of a Texas funeral home cosmetician (Jack Black) in "Bernie."

      The publicly despised and wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) enjoys the company of a Texas funeral home cosmetician (Jack Black) in "Bernie."

  • Video: "Where Do We Go Now?" trailer

  • Video: "Bernie" trailer

 
 

Reel Life review: 'Bernie'
I have the same fundamental problem with Richard Linklater's "Bernie" as I had with Sam Mendes' Oscar-winning drama "American Beauty." Both movies fumble what could have been earthshaking shocks by revealing too much way too soon.

In "American Beauty," Kevin Spacey reveals in the opening scene that he's dead, thereby undermining what could have been an utter disbelief moment when later he's shot to death at the kitchen table.

Likewise in "Bernie," Jack Black's sweet and generous titular character guns down old Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) in their small Texas town, robbing this movie of a great revelation much later when the disbelieving townspeople figure out why the woman hasn't been seen in months.

This information is hardly a spoiler. "Bernie" is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Black) of Carthage, Texas, who's now in prison for Mrs. Nugent's murder and, in a weird twist of fate, can't even see this movie all about him.

Fans know that Black isn't only a gifted comic actor, but a rocker who performs in his group Tenacious D. He's also quite the songbird in "Bernie," for he warbles up inspiring renditions of hymns in church. Black really earns his stripes as one of Hollywood's MVPs by creating a character like none he's played before.

Linklater presents "Bernie" as a mock documentary. Many of the people "interviewed" on-camera are nonactors from the area. A hardly recognizable (and native Texan) Matthew McConaughey plays District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson as the only man in the state who doesn't fall for Bernie's charm and effusive optimism.

Black's Bernie is presented as a renaissance gentleman, known for his artful embalming at the local funeral home, and for numerous acts of Christian generosity and selflessness. When he meets the most hated woman in town, the self-centered, mean-spirited Mrs. Nugent (MacLaine, cranking up her prickly "Terms of Endearment" character to intolerable levels), Bernie resolves to befriend her.

Soon, the two are jetting off on vacations together, much to the surprise and disapproval of the local populace. (Nope, there's no hanky-panky going on. The movie makes only passing allusions to Bernie struggling to stay in the closet.) The two appear to be a wonderful match...

...until the day lovable Bernie snaps under one-too-many unkind straws heaped on his back by the scathingly awful Mrs. Nugent.

For the most part, "Bernie" remains a modest movie with an almost made-for-cable quality, but its impeccable cast lifts the experience to a higher plane, especially when it suggests that beloved murderers with good hearts can be forgiven for killing wicked people, and only a change of venue can provide a fair trial. Uh, not for the accused. For the victim.

"Bernie" opens at the Century Centre, Chicago and the Evanston CineArts 6. Rated PG-13 for language and violence. 104 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life review: 'Where Do We Go Now?'
The radical premise behind Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki's battle-of-the-sexes comedy is staggeringly bold: Christian and Muslim women can place civility and safety above their religion, above their menfolk and above their traditions.

"Where Do We Go Now?" (also the movie's enigmatic last line) takes a page from the ancient Greeks' playbook "Lysistrata."

Muslim and Christian women in an unnamed Middle Eastern community band together to stop their husbands, brothers and sons from finding a paltry excuse to go to war and kill each other.

Again.

Labaki isn't always successful in applying a light and broad comic approach to the subject of death, loss and anguish. (Characters breaking into song as if in a Mideast version of a Bollywood movie strain even comic credibility.)

But posing the idea that testosterone causes wars -- not necessarily religion or political ideology -- supplies Labaki's second feature with appealing fire power.

The women (Labaki plays a single mother on the Muslim side) concoct a smorgasbord of distractions for their unruly menfold.

They hire Ukrainian strippers to pretend their bus has broken down and they need places to stay. The women ply their guys with hashish-stuffed goodies. One Christian wife feigns seeing the Virgin Mary in a vision, and her message asks for peace and community.

Yes, it's sometimes hokey. Yes, it's sometimes silly. Even awkward.

Still, Labaki imbues her feature with urgent sincerity, a hard critical edge under the frothy comic veneer that reminds us that war makes losers of everyone, and that the road to peace -- like the road into the town's mixed Christian/Muslim cemetery -- doesn't come with a clearly marked map.

"Where Do We Go Now?" opens at the Music Box in Chicago and the Evanston CineArts 6. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations and violence. 110 minutes. ★ ★ ★

'Lost in Rio' Saturday
Before Michel Hazanavicius won the Oscar for best director and best picture with "The Artist," he and Oscar-winning "Artist" star Jean Dujardin made the 2009 spy comedy "OSS 117: Lost in Rio."

It's a sequel to their hilarious 2006 spy spoof "OSS 117 Cairo: Nest of Spies," in which Dujardin recreates Sean Connery's 1960s-era James Bond 007 with cross hairs accuracy.

Now, you can see "Lost in Rio" with me and the Hoffman Estates Sister Cities Commission when we celebrate French cinema at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Hoffman Estates Village Hall, 1900 Hassell Road, Hoffman Estates.

Admission is free. We'll have a brief discussion after the movie, which puts Agent 117 on the trail of a list of Nazi collaborators during World War II. Inspector Clouseau has nothing on this guy.

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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