Well, after a few weeks of false starts and/or missed opportunities, Michael and I finally caught up with Ruby Sparks, a contemporary update on the old Pygmalion and Galetea tale in which a sculptor falls in love with one of his creations–a statue of an idealized female–and brings it to life. This latest incarnation was written by actress Zoe Kazan as a vehicle for her and her longtime s.o., Paul Dano. (Yep, in case you’re wondering, she’s the granddaughter of the late Elia Kazan.) The film is directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris, who previously collaborated with Dano on 2006’s Oscar nominated Little Miss Sunshine. In this instance, Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a novelist who hit it big while still in his teens but has only written intermittently in the decade since then; of course, he’s been dealing with some heavy stuff in that time: the death of a parent, a messy breakup, etc. Kazan’s Ruby first comes to Calvin in a dream, which eventually inspires him to write again. Ruby’s actual manifestation arrives in stages, and soon she and Calvin are living in one-sided bliss; after all, Calvin knows more about Ruby than she knows about herself. Plus, he can write her to be whatever he wants or needs at any given time. Naturally, complications ensue.
I liked Ruby Sparks, but I did not love it. On a scale of 1-10, I would give it a 6, maybe; I don’t think I would watch it again, either. I like Dano a lot, but I feel like too much of this movie is recycled from other sources, which it clearly is, but aside from the obvious mythological allusions, there are a few others. Dano is likable in his role, and he’s markedly different from the characters he played in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, but his anxious–befuddled–writer recalls Ryan O’Neal’s nerdy professor in 1972’s What’s up Doc? (maybe it’s the specs); of course, die-hard film fanatics know that What’s Up Doc? is the cinematic descendant of 1938’s Bringing Up Baby–now recognized as a screwball classic–and that O’Neal’s performance is itself a sly tribute to Cary Grant’s portrayal of a buttoned-down paleontologist increasingly flustered by the antics of Katherine Hepburn’s dizzy heiress. While watching this new offering, I didn’t mind the idea that I felt like I’d already seen Dano’s performance in other, better, movies, but it did seem a little, well, old hat.
Kazan’s Ruby, on the other hand, was even less endearing. Something about the way the character has been conceived–by Kazan herself, don’t forget–struck me as way too reminiscent of Zooey Deschanel’s beguiling “Summer” in 500 Days of Summer (both characters are recent LA. transplants, their “backgrounds” are established with a few newsreel-like flashes, including sifting through pages in a yearbook, and they both favor bicycles) and while Dano appears to be borrowing from movies that are well older than he is, Kazan seems to be cribbing from something that only came out a few years ago. (Some IMDb enthusiasts have commented about the similarities to 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I digress) I don’t get it. Dano’s character is supposed to be a brilliant writer, but he (as outlined by Kazan) didn’t really stretch too much to create this girlie-woman that he fancies to the extreme. On the other hand, Kazan did see fit to include one big “acting class demonstration” moment for Ruby, and she delivers the goods with showy abandon, but so what? I also hated the ending. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you, but I don’t have to because it’s the most predictable ending in the world. You should see it coming well before it happens, which is another thing: the movie is anywhere from 15-20 minutes too long. A sequence involving Annette Bening as Calvin’s mother could be scrapped entirely. It does provide a little character development, but it doesn’t really advance the plot. On the other hand, it could no doubt boost tourism in Big Sur. I thought–I was hoping–that the movie was going to end twice before it actually did, and when it did end, it was just as bad as I feared it would be. There should have been at least one final twist to give the conclusion, you know, a spark of some kind.
^ Now playing in theatres and also available for home viewing: Bernie starring (l-r) Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, and Shirley MacLaine. Though the year-end glut of awards worthy performances is still a month or so away, no less than Roger Ebert has already proclaimed Black’s performance as one of 2012’s best.
The same day that Michael and I saw Ruby Sparks, I was surprised to find that Austin-based Richlard Linklater’s Bernie was newly available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Now, Bernie is a movie I can support 100%. “Really,” you ask, “on DVD already? Isn’t it still playing in theatres?” Yep, that’s right. Indeed, our Ruby Sparks box office cashier was answering questions about Bernie for another customer while we were in line. The cashier called the movie, “a local phenomenon” and added that it was currently in its 17th week at that theatre, and I happen to know that other theatres all over the metroplex are also enjoying long-running engagements with the same film. When I saw the movie in July–a belated b’day treat with a longtime friend–it had already been playing for awhile; now, as I write this just over a week since it came out on DVD, Bernie continues its run on local screens. It’s stuff like this that makes me sometimes miss working in the movie biz; meanwhile, Ruby Sparks has come and gone in a flash.
What’s all the fuss? Well, Bernie, in case you haven’t heard, is a true-crime story set in small-town Carthage, out there in the pines of East Texas. Bernie Tiede’s saga first became big-time news in a 1998 Texas Monthly investigative piece penned by Skip Hollandsworth: “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” a clumsy allusion to John Berendt’s sublime account of a scandalous murder trial in the beautiful old Southern city of Savannah, GA. Bernie’s tale might be a tad more gruesome than the one in Berendt’s mammoth bestseller (and subsequent movie) though it lacks that story’s well defined cast of colorful characters, but the eccentric Texana flourishes are all there in Linklater’s latest– as if Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil were merged with Greater Tuna or, per Linklater, the Coens’ classic Fargo (1996).
Simply, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) was and is the proverbial big fish in a small pond: an assistant funeral director who excels at all aspects of his job (prepping the deceased for viewing, redecorating the funeral parlor, comforting the bereaved, and sometimes even conducting services); an active member of his church–especially the choir–besides being a highly visible presence in the community theater scene, a tireless promoter of local arts events, and the go-to person for the town’s “official” Christmas festivities; generous to a fault. Bernie is such a sweet-natured, delightful dumpling, he can’t help but attract the attention of the ladies though he is most solicitous of wealthy widows. Soon enough, Bernie endears himself to Carthage’s richest–and reportedly meanest–dowager, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Seemingly inseparable, the relationship between the pair becomes the scandalous talk-of-the-town. Are they lovers? Is he using her? Is she using him? Isn’t the one with the mustache a homosexual? With Bernie as her personal stylist, Marjorie’s appearance softens though she’s no less ornery; nonetheless, the two embark upon lavish, luxurious trips all across the globe as established in a deliberately hokey montage that is as effective as it brief (it gets the job done), but just how long can these fools’ paradise last? (Btw: Any resemblance to Calvin’s need to control Ruby and Marjorie’s need to control Bernie are purely coincidental.)
I’ll stop there. Of course, this is a fairly well-known story, so even if you haven’t seen the movie, you might already know about its bizarre twists and turns from reading the Hollandsworth article, some movie reviews, or from seeing it played out in a TV true-crime documentary. If you have encountered none of the above, good for you. Let me just add that Bernie’s outrageous crime is certainly more than matched by the reaction of the community to it, and the resulting trial is a circus of Looney Tunes proportions.
Director Richard Linklater first worked with Jack Black (above) on 2003’s School of Rock, an uncharacteristically mainstream endeavor for Linklater, the Texas filmmaker best known for such low-budgeted, modestly scaled and–mostly–indie
offerings as Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), and its follow-up, 2004’s Before Sunset. Linklater was Oscar nominated for co-writing the latter’s screenplay with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who also starred in the movie as well. School of Rock was, prior to Bernie, the best vehicle for Black, who also performs as part of a rock band known as Tenacious D.
Make no mistake, Bernie is Jack Black’s movie, a dream role for this gifted if unconventional–and not always easy to cast–actor. Of course, Bernie Tiede is quite a ridiculous figure, but Black doesn’t make a mockery of him (which would be easy), but he doesn’t entirely let him off the hook either. I don’t know that audiences laugh with Bernie instead of at him–since I don’t think Bernie is laughing in the first place–but I do think Black invites us to be amused and delighted, which is different. Black’s Bernie is almost always “on” whether he’s belting out gospel songs in church, performing show tunes in theater productions, singing along full throttle with his car radio, demonstrating the “art” of mortuary cosmetizing, or conducting a cooking class; at other times, he’s soft-soaping someone or another with his own brand of patented sincerity. Oh, and the way he moves: everything about him is crisp, efficient, and just ever so slightly prissy (nothing too terribly overdone). Watch how methodical he is even when folding underwear. He also manages a convincing Southern accent. Plus, he has a few scenes which require him to be a slobbering, blubbering mess. The role also offers Black a chance to physically transform himself just a bit as Bernie sports jet black “helmet” hair. (He’s no doubt a vintage Consort man…google it) Though portly, he’s always neatly–if starchly–attired. Lots of Tommy Hilfiger. Beautiful. Naturally, I’ve never meet the real Bernie Tiede, but I have had the weird fortune to cross paths with more than a few middle-aged, doughy gay men who work as boy toys for well-to-do society ladies–don’t ask me how that happens–and Black seems to know exactly what he’s doing; per the DVD, he actually had an opportunity to confer with Tiede during pre-production. I sincerely hope that Black’s performance in this true sleeper generates some awards buzz at year’s end. An Oscar nomination might be too much to hope for, what with the likes of Joaquin Phoenix (Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) and Daniel Day Lewis (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) in more noticeably heavyweight, Academy friendly material–but a little Golden Globe consideration would be nice.
The film’s other two major roles are played by Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. As previously noted, MacLaine portrays crusty Marjorie Nugent. It’s a thankless, sketchily written role, but MacLaine is a pro with a strong enough presence to fill in some of the gaps. Plus, her history of bringing to life superficially similar sourpusses in Terms of Endearment (1983), Steel Magnolias (1989), and even Guarding Tess (1994) adds just the right amount of extra baggage. The audience believes her because she has played this type before and played it well; she won an Oscar for her performance as Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, and she scored a Golden Globe nod for playing a former First Lady engaged in a battle of wills with a Secret Service agent (Nicolas Cage) in Guarding Tess. Of course, her work as Steel Magnolia‘s high maintenance Ouiser Boudreaux exists in a realm all by its spectacular self. On the other hand, MacLaine doesn’t really look as matronly as the real Nugent; however, both women have red hair, fair skin, and freckles, so the resemblance is passable. McConaughey takes on the role of the improbably named real-life district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson. A smug, self-satisfied showboater, Buck prepares for the biggest case of his career by mustering up as much righteous indignation as possible in the face of the public’s skewed fascination in the Tiede case. Texas native McConaughey, who got his first break as the so-smooth-he’s-oily “Wooderson” in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), plays the whole thing ever-so-slyly when, like Black with Bernie, it would be easy to go a little too far into the ham-zone. Plus, he lets the audience see that despite Davidson’s cocky exterior, he hasn’t lost touch with his humanity. After years of playing in formulaic drivel, McConaughey seems to have found a handful of new projects to excite his imagination. Oh sure, he also appeared as a stripper in Steve Soderbergh’s Magic Mike over the summer, but he’s also been busy with the likes of Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Dallas Buyer’s Club. Recent photos show the actor looking surprisingly gaunt as he plays an HIV patient in the latter. Hmmmmmmm……
Besides the three major players, the cast is rounded out by a mix of professional actors, many of them regionally based, such as Brady Coleman (as Bernie’s lawyer, Clifton L. “Scrappy” Holmes), Sonny Carl Davis (a particularly opinionated townie named Lonny), the magnificent Richard Robichaux (as Lloyd Hornbuckle, the thorn in Bernie’s side), and the late Rick Dial (as Bernie’s mortuary boss); meanwhile, the roles of Carthage’s hilariously gossipy residents are played by real-life members of the community (and surrounding areas), many of whom share their actual recollections of both Tiede and Nugent in one of the DVD’s extra features. Surely, among those, Kay “Baby” Epperson makes a grand impression as a no b.s. type who actually needs a better b.s. detector. She has one of the movie’s best zingers, which Linklater says was an ad-lib.
Black (l) and McConaughey (r) appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly’s May 2012 issue.
The film was shot in and around Carthage as well as Austin. I’ve now read more than one account of Bernie’s story, and I’ve watched a rerun of the A & E/Biography channel’s City Confidential episode about the case in addition to the various DVD extras, so I think the film’s look is pretty much exactly as it should be. Either the filmmakers were given permission to shoot in some of the actual locations, or they managed to find convincing stand-ins. The exterior of the Nugent home is spot-on; the interior is a hoot, a taxidermist’s delight that provides a wicked bit of foreshadowing. Just enjoy.
Linklater collaborated with Hollandsworth on the screenplay, and while a few liberties have been taken with some of the real story’s incidental details, by most accounts the more pertinent, more outrageous, bits are pretty much exactly as Hollandsworth originally outlined; one of Marjorie Nugent’s relatives actually praises the movie’s veracity in a New York Times piece. Of course, even with a story as well researched as this one, a leap of faith is required by the audience since not every party involved has a voice–and we know, clearly, that the person that does have a voice is not necessarily a reliable narrator. That’s a fact. Interestingly, per the DVD, Hollandsworth and Linklater actually met years and years ago just after Hollandsworth wrote his article. As Linklater explains, at the time of Hollandsworth’s original report the outcome of the Tiede case was not yet known, and Linklater travelled to San Augustin county in order to witness the trial first-hand. Knowing that Linklater actually sat in the courtroom and observed the action as it lumbered to its conclusion gives the movie even more authenticity–and fills me with twisted delight. I just like knowing that Linklater was that close to the event and that he and Hollandsworth never lost sight of wanting to film Bernie’s story. Part of the delay, as Linklater explains, was finding the right actor to play Bernie. Once Black became part of the equation, the director even waited awhile longer to make sure the actor aged into the role in order to be as convincing as possible. The real Bernie Tiede would no doubt agree: in performance as well as in crime, timing is everything.
Thanks for your consideration…
“Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth: http://www.texasmonthly.com/1998-01-01/feature4.php
Q & A with Skip Hollandsworth: http://www.texasmonthly.com/2012-05-01/webextra3.php
Marjorie Nugent’s nephew writes about both his aunt and the movie in the New York Times: http://tinyurl.com/7uxezxh
A timeline of the Tiede case per the Longview News Journal:
Roger Ebert reviews Bernie: