God, I loved this movie. Even with about 20 minutes of the most vicious, realistic argument between a couple I have ever seen onscreen, I found this to be a heartbreakingly beautiful, funny, and romantic film about relationships.

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If you’ve seen the previous films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) — and if you haven’t, WATCH THEM IMMEDIATELY — you know that these are the talkiest movies you’re likely to see. In each one, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) wander around the streets of beautiful European cities talking — talking to flirt, talking to catch up with each other, talking as part of a relationship. I feel as if my own love life has grown up alongside them, and that each film captures something fragile and amazing (and a little geeky) about flirtation and love. The films get better and better for those of us who love talking and listening. Flashy they’re not; those viewers who require vampires or car chases or superheroes should just skip them.

Considering that this is just a film in which two people talk, how is it possible that I walked out saying, “How did they do that?”

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The film’s success rests on what Delpy can do with a difficult role. Why difficult? Because Celine is the more “difficult” in their relationship. Jesse has settled into the position of being affable, even-tempered — the mensch. But for Celine, his equanimity comes at a cost to her. He downplays or laughs at her worries, which makes her feel worse. It’s not fair, of course, to say that this is Delpy’s movie; this is a film about a relationship, and in this one Ethan Hawke has finally won me over to his acting.

What makes this film so remarkable is not simply that Delpy and Hawke inhabit those roles and ALL THAT DIALOGUE so effortlessly, but that their characters are so utterly believable — so much so that you find yourself taking sides, and (in my case, anyway) changing my mind about which one is more sympathetic or more “right.”

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Now, being a talky type myself, I’ve never been afraid of an argument with my partner. Not that I’d want to rehash some of the doozies we’ve had. But I figure that arguments are part of the nature of the beast in relationships. Better have a lot of little earthquakes than long silence and then a huge doomsday fight. I’ve never understood those people who say about their exes, “We never had a single fight until he/she just left me.” Mm hm. 

All this is to say that Celine is the one who keeps the little earthquakes emerging in their relationship. And I can see that some viewers will find her grating or neurotic. But I found her to be utterly realistic — neurotic, yes, but also exactly the partner that would have been formed by their relationship.

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Delpy is so good that it’s hard to believe she is not Celine. Neurotic, yes, but also wise to the whimsies of her longtime partner, and self-aware enough to know that it would kill her to let him get away with spinning out his whimsies without a response.

Watching them bob and weave during little moments — in their romantic moments, as they walk through beautiful parts of the South Peloponnesian peninsula that are as well-nigh close to heaven as you can imagine; but also in their horrible moments, as they full-on fight in their elegant hotel room — you witness something amazing: the real ebb and flow of real-life couples. That’s what amazed me more here than a complex car chase or martial arts battle: this is true choreography.

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Jesse calls Celine “the mayor of Crazy Town” in one of their uglier moments. When he says it, you almost believe it — even as the very sentence construction grates on your nerves as if it were your husband calling you crazy. Is there anything more tired than the “you’re crazy” ad hominem part of the couples argument? Which makes it even more impressive is that your sympathies bob and weave as they argue with each other; you see exactly why Jesse’s so frustrated, and Celine so touchy.

Yet just as with their previous film, it concludes with an amazing moment. It’s the simplest of narrative moves, yet so affecting that I can honestly claim that this is a truly romantic film. Like the final scene in the previous film, Before Sunset, it evoked emotions in me that I just couldn’t have seen coming.

If this film doesn’t pick up serious screenplay prizes and acting awards for Delpy — well, I’ll be confirmed in my belief that those prizes are bullshit. Again.

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Bernie is about one thing: the pleasures and eccentricities of small-town life. Is it a great film? It doesn’t matter. I can guarantee you’ll watch it again in the years ahead — because you enjoy every single minute. If it falls down in one way, it sometimes felt as if director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunset, School of Rock) veered a little too much toward mocking small-town types, as if the point was less to document the delights of that life than to collect those funny-looking butterflies and put them in a glossy case for big-city folk to look at.

I’ve been to this restaurant (in Bastrop, TX). The banana pudding is excellent. And yes, the entire place is lined with wood paneling and taxidermied animal heads.

Bernie tells the real-life story of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a sweet and closeted gay man who’s pretty much the most beloved man in Carthage, TX. His cosmetic work preparing the recently deceased for their open-casket funerals is loving, careful, flattering. He sings like a bird in the church choir and has a way with all the L.O.L.s (little old ladies). He helps people with their taxes and directs (and stars in) all the musicals at the community theater. When he befriends the meanest and richest woman in town, Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), he does so because he’s such a people person. Margie is so entranced by his kindness and attention that she falls a little bit in love. And then she turns mean and possessive.

Why is he so loyal to her? Because he’s a really nice man, and because he’s trapped by the golden handcuffs of her wealth, which pays for an awful lot of expensive travel and pedicures.

My favorite part of the film isn’t the terrific acting by Black and MacLaine — both of whom are great — but the interviews with real-life Carthage residents who provide all the social context, character analysis, gossip, and local color about life in a town of less than 7,000 people. Perched on porches, or in feed warehouses and cafés, the locals offer up commentary that propels the narrative forward and reminds you where the story’s going.

At some point Bernie cracks after Margie berates him one too many times. He shoots her four times in the back with an armadillo gun, hides her body in a box freezer, and proceeds to spend a whole lot of her money helping out everyone he can.

These interviews (and the ways they’re staged) are just great — using local Texasisms and strong accents that flow so fast & furious that you’ll try to remember them for future use. Explaining how mean Margie was, one woman says, “Her nose was so high up she would drown in a rainstorm.” Another offers: “Honey, there were people in this town who’d have shot her for $5.” Describing his distrust of the bombastic, self-promoting local district attorney, one resident says, “I wouldn’t let him work on my car.” Best of all is the tirade spit out by one guy, during the film’s final credits, about the rubes who live in the next town over. Or the denial by another woman that Bernie possibly could have been gay: “Our Lord always wore sandals and never got married and had 12 male disciples … and nobody ever called them queer.”

But sometimes these interviews just feel, well, a little rehearsed — as if Linklater had seen some TV footage or an in-print interview with this resident, and asked them to reprise it for the film. Maybe it’s because I loved this commentary so much that those moments when it feels practiced detracted from my enjoyment so much.

Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t ruin the film by any means. When Bernie enters regular rotation on one of those basic-cable channels, I’ll tune in every time. It’s a film made by someone who loves those accents, those Texasisms, those eccentric faces who hold forth with astute summaries of their neighbors’ characters.

But on those occasions when the film starts to feel as if Linklater had made it so his big-city friends could get a big guffaw out of those over-decorated dens with endless taxidermied animal heads … well, let’s just say, in the parlance of the state, that dog won’t hunt. 

And that’s my only objection.

Watching this film made my previous forays into my Cult Marathon for Movies about Female Rockers look like High Art. I guess you know that when a film’s opening credits announce that it was written, directed, photographed, and edited all by the same guy (David Markey, who was 19 when this was made), you’re getting a very particular kind of viewing experience. In Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, the obviously non-professional actors sometimes giggle their way through scenes, cross-dress when necessary to staff a role, and do their best with campy dialogue (“Thanks for killing my mom”). Most of the time you’re laughing at them, which they fully expect. But you won’t be bored.

I loved it the minute it opened with its grainy, hand-held Super-8 footage of heroine Kitty Carryall welcoming her best friend Bunny Tremelo back to town at the Greyhound station:

Kitty:  Even though Alexandria was committed I’m not gonna let that stop us. Now that you’re in town I’m gonna get the band together and we’re gonna rock L.A.
Bunny:  Rock L.A.?!? The Love Dolls are gonna rock the world!
Kitty:  Fuck yeah!

They score some drugs, steal a guitar, and lurk around the Venice, California boardwalk where they eat some cotton candy out of a garbage can. It would seem from these scenes that Markey was influenced by early John Waters films — I watched a super-realistic shock scene of Alexandria, the mental hospital escapee, shooting heroin and remembered almost vomiting during that final scene of Waters’ Pink Flamingos. (Divine was a much more convincing female character for Waters than Markey’s cross-dressed characters, however.)

Messing around with the guitar on a sidewalk, they’re discovered by a big-shot record producer, Johnny Tremain (!), who tells them, “I think I could do for you girls what God did for mankind,” by which he means more specifically that he’ll transform them into “the hottest rock goddesses in town.” Too bad he’s also a sleazebag with a penchant for wearing bright blue running tights to show off his man-parts — and it’s while wearing them that he manages to rape Bunny. But Johnny’s better than the vicious gang, the She Devils, who lurk around Venice and harbor a vendetta against the Love Dolls, especially after the Love Dolls score their #1 hit single.

Doesn’t this shot of Kitty (Jennifer Schwartz, above right) look reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991)? As the body count rises in Desperate Teenage Lovedolls one begins to overlook the dialogue, acting gaffes, and narrative gaps in favor of what it does so well: capture what had happened to teenage rebellion in the early ’80s when it was no longer just rebellion, but ironic rebellion. Even the terrific soundtrack for the film, featuring a whole host of early ’80s L.A. punk bands (Red Kross, Black Flag, The Nip Drivers and more) seemed less oriented to rebelling than to making a statement about style; subverting social norms was enough, it went no further. (I haven’t yet seen its sequel, Lovedolls Superstar Fully Realized, but I’m not convinced from the plot summary that it’s going to go further.)

All of these early-’80s films — Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Times Square, and Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984) — paint a different picture of the Reagan era than we’ve preferred to remember. Honestly: I’m riveted. But I’m leaving that era for my next two Cult Marathon screenings. Stay tuned for more on

  • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970 schlock melodrama from big-breasts obsessed Russ Meyer; screenplay by Roger Ebert!)
  • Prey For Rock & Roll (2003, with the perpetual hottie Gina Gershon!)
  • and Lovedolls Superstar Fully Realized if I can find a DVD copy.

Rock on, ladies. Fuck yeah!