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!