Richard Linklater, 99 mins, 12A; Michael Winterbottom, 101 mins, 18

Film review: Bernie and The Look of Love - Sex and death get jaunty treatment in real-life tales thin on substance

 

There are two comedy-tinged true stories at a cinema near you this week. Each of them is an engaging profile of an unusual man, but each of them leaves you feeling that you know less about the man in question at the end of the film than you did at the start.

The better of the two is Bernie, an upbeat curio which reunites Richard Linklater and Jack Black, the director and star of School of Rock. Black plays Bernie Tiede, a funeral director in a small Texas town. Tiede – the archetypal confirmed bachelor – is adored by the entire community, and his sunny, can-do positivity even wins over a rich widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), well known for her poisonous misanthropy. Tiede is so beloved, in fact, that when he commits a terrible crime, in 1996, a self-seeking District Attorney (Matthew McConaughey) is the only person in town who doesn't rush to his defence.

Black's precise performance as a prim Southern gentleman is an absolute treat, while MacLaine and McConaughey are almost as funny, so it's a shame that the three of them are off-screen for so much of the running time. Linklater assigns half of his film to vox pops with the townsfolk (apparently genuine locals, rather than actors), who sit on porch swings and fertiliser sacks, drawling their opinions of Tiede and Nugent. They certainly have a way with words. On the question of Tiede's sexuality, one associate admits: "There was always talk of Bernie being a little light in the loafers." And of Nugent's snobbery, someone else remarks: "Her nose was so high she'd drown in a rainstorm."

Amusing as these good ol' boys and gals are, none of them knows what went on between Tiede and Nugent behind closed doors, and Linklater seems unwilling to speculate. He depicts the odd couple as others see them, but never dramatises how they might behave in private. The upshot is that he leaves too much unanswered, including the question of why he decided to make his trifling docu-comedy. He adapted the anecdotal screenplay from a magazine article, and a magazine article is, ultimately, all it amounts to.

There's a similarly frustrating superficiality to The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom's jaunty biopic of Paul Raymond, the billionaire property baron, strip-club owner and girly-mag publisher who died in 2008. Steve Coogan plays Raymond as a bumbler – not unlike Alan Partridge – whose pick-up lines are as cheesy as his Medallion Man wardrobe, so there's some fun to be had in watching him and his cohorts being toweringly naff, even as they gorge themselves on all the sex and drugs that Soho has to offer.

But if Coogan and Co spend much of the film getting their kit off, Raymond himself is never stripped bare. We see him breaking up with his wife (Anna Friel), getting together with a Sloaney model (Tamsin Egerton), setting up Men Only with a smarmy lawyer (James Lance) and a coke-addled editor (Chris Addison), and trying to launch his fragile daughter (the evermore impressive Imogen Poots) as a singer and impresario. But we're never shown what any of these incidents means to him, or why they should mean anything to us.

Maybe Raymond really was as shallow as Winterbottom's gossipy romp, but surely he must have had some views on pornography and feminism, as well as some flair and ambition as a businessman. The Look of Love implies that he became Britain's richest man by accident.

Critic's Choice

Sundance London concludes its residency at London's O2 arena today with films including Matthew McConaughey in Boys' Own river adventure Mud, and the dazzling, beyond-bizarre Upstream Color … also French maverick Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) returns with a jungle-siege thriller in the gripping Rebellion.

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