I guess I must have been simply naïve when I concluded, after seeing and flipping out over Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys 14 years ago, that everyone else would like it as much as I did. But frankly, I’m even more bewildered by the critical coolness being shown now in some quarters towards Bernie, a masterpiece which might be regarded as a kind of companion piece to The Newton Boys, only one that runs still deeper and is in some ways even more accessible: another edifying film about locals from a part of East Texas that Linklater obviously knows like the back of his hand and deeply cherishes, and another one that ponders the notion of justifiable or defensible crime without ever deserting a sturdy moral code.
The writing (by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, whose non-fiction article, which first appeared when The Newton Boys was in post-production, inspired the movie) is so good that the humor can’t be reduced to simple satire; a whole community winds up speaking through the film, and it has a lot to say. In fact, it’s hard to think of many other celebrations of small-town American life that are quite as rich, as warm, and as complexly layered, at least within recent years. But in this case, I suspect that many audiences who can discover this film without the “benefit” of reviewers, myself included, will thoroughly “get” and enjoy the film — or at least will if they get a chance to catch up with it before it disappears. [July 4 postscript: My worries on the film's behalf were premature; it has subsequently had a substantial commercial success, and at this point even promises to become Linklater's most successful independent release.] Maybe the film is more subversive than I originally thought, which is why it’s bothering some of the more straight- laced reviewers. I love the fact that it never bothers to clarify in any conclusive way whether or not the title hero played by Jack Black is gay; theoretically, I suppose this might be for legal reasons — although I’m not sure, because it appears that other sources have been quite outspoken about the real-life person’s gayness and active sex life back in Carthage, Texas, where most of this story happened. Or maybe the reviewers are bothered by the mix of actors and interviewed locals, fictional and non-fictional representations freely rubbing shoulders (as they do in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, as was pointed out by A.A. Dowd in Time Out Chicago), because we aren’t told which is which — another radical decision about what does and doesn’t need to be clarified.
So let me just say that I haven’t had more fun at any new American movie this year (one near-exception: Wes Anderson’s equally sweet-tempered and even more mannerist Moonrise Kingdom), and I hope many others will get a chance to share my pleasure before this movie vanishes from sight. [5/17/12; revised and expanded, 5/20/12 & 7/4/12]