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Bernie & The Paperboy

I guess Matthew McConaughey is to 2012, what Michael Fassbender was to 2011—from a prolific standpoint at least. And I still haven’t seen what many are calling his best work from last year(William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe”). He ran the gamut in four different films these past 12 months, and there was even serious talk just a scant few weeks ago about Matt getting consideration for an Oscar nomination for his work as stripper/club owner Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike”! I liked “Magic Mike”. “Bernie” is even better. “The Paperboy”? Well, you may not ever forget director Lee Daniels’ follow-up to his award-winning “Precious” from 2009—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. McConaughey plays support roles in both “The Paperboy” and “Bernie”, in wildly disparate performances. Being that he’s a lawyer in the better one, I guess to me he’s comes full circle since his “breakthrough” role as the young attorney in 1996’s “A Time to Kill”. But Matt’s shown some welcome versatility in his 2012 releases. He’s not just a pretty boy, after all.

Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” is based on a true story, and that’s confirmed when we witness Jack Black in an animated conversation with Bernie Tiede during the end credits. And Black is superb here—easily the most I’ve enjoyed his work in a decade or more. He is a difficult guy to cast. I found him to be way too contemporary as Carl Denham in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of “King Kong”. He was all wrong for that, and he also seemed like the odd-man out in Noah Baumbach’s underrated 2007 offering, “Margot at the Wedding”. Plus, he grated on my nerves in 2008’s “Tropic Thunder”, and then there’s all the cartoon animal voice-work stuff(pandas, sharks, tigers). What happened to the guy who exploded onto the scene as music snob Barry in 2000’s “High Fidelity”. That Black was a real talent! Well, he’s back. Bernie Tiede(Mr. Black)is a small-town mortician in Texas, who quickly becomes a community favorite due to his inexhaustible energy, sincerity and enthusiasm. Bernie gets involved in all the town activities and always goes above-and-beyond in comforting the grieving at the funeral home. So, he’s pushing 40, is unmarried and prompts whispers about possible homosexuality. Women and men love him because his personality is just so infectious. His polar opposite is the rich, town widow Marge Nugent(a welcome Shirley MacLaine). Everyone despises her, and she has no problem returning their vitriol. She’s earned her reputation by being nasty and abrasive with all that she comes in contact with, but wouldn’t you know it that Bernie finds a way to charm her too. And they become inseparable. Until Marge’s demands on Bernie’s attention and time prove just too much, forcing him to finally behave in an uncharacteristic way. And lawyer Danny Buck Davidson(Mr. McConaughey)sets out to prove that ray-of-light Bernie may just have a dark side too.

“The Paperboy” is a whole other animal, entirely—and it might just lose some viewers as soon as Charlotte Bless(a wonderfully trashy, Nicole Kidman)rips off her panties and spreads her legs so her death row inmate fiance(John Cusack, against type as a glowering, murderous bayou hillbilly)can masturbate. In front of a room full of people. To others it will be wonderful sleaze, but it gets increasingly difficult for the film to maintain focus and cohesion after that seedy display—it ends up being impossible to top. It hooks you early on with the murder of a hated local sheriff. Hillary Van Wetter(Mr. Cusack)is arrested and jailed for the crime, and Ms. Bless becomes engaged to him as a stranger, after sending him letters in prison(apparently, writing letters to inmates is a hobby of hers). Enter reporter Ward Jansen(Matthew M.), who is determined to prove Van Wetter’s innocence. Ward is a local boy, who’s now an investigative reporter for the Miami Times, and he brings along a black colleague(David Oyelowo)to an often overtly racist 1960’s backwoods community. Ward also has a younger brother, Jack(heart-throb Zac Efron), who tags along when Ward first interviews Ms. Bless—and falls madly in love with the skanky beauty. He is also best friends with the family’s African-American maid, Anita(Macy Gray!), who narrates this lopsided enterprise—and you’ll almost certainly end up asking yourself “why”(apparently, she is not the narrator in the novel of the same name). Ultimately, the film ends up biting off way too much for us to chew on. The murder of the sheriff drops almost entirely to the background, as the narrative shifts haphazardly from Jack’s obsession with Charlotte to the racist environment of the swamp-soaked town to Ward’s extremely dangerous extra curricular activities. And as fond as I was of the Kidman pantie-rip showcase, I didn’t see the point of showcasing her peeing on Jack after he’s stung by a jellyfish. I’m all for tawdry, if it’s tawdry for a reason. Besides it ultimately pulls its punch by muddying up the visual of said scene. But Kidman’s pretty terrific here, and McConaughey trots the line nicely between forthright and unbalanced, but the film is just too unwieldy of a thing. And I would have had more respect for it if it didn’t botch the finale—but it did. It’s gruesome where it needs to be, but unfortunately goes soft during the wrap-up. But a sizable portion of it is a hoot—for better or worse.

And both are a nice showcase for the busy Matthew McConaughey. He did not end up getting that coveted Oscar nom, but he’s succeeded in prompting me to reevaluate his canon after his fruitful, breakneck 2012 output. I’m intrigued enough to make sure I watch “Killer Joe” now, and I look forward to the postponed “Mud”(now set for release this coming April)from “Take Shelter” director,  Jeff Nichols. It appears I just may have been too hard on him for starring in those Sarah Jessica Parker/Kate Hudson/Jennifer Lopez vehicles(they are all basically the same movie anyway, right?). This man has some chops. I won’t forget again.    Grades:  “Bernie”   A-   “The Paperboy”   C

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