This week brings two centerpiece performances from two celebrated actors with sketchy track records. Jack Black tamps down his physicality in Bernie, a true-crime story directed by Richard Linklater in which Black’s beloved assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede murders the wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. Meanwhile, John Cusack flounders in the high-octane mess that is The Raven, directed by James McTeigue and costarring Luke Evans. In it, he plays a fictionalized version of Edgar Allan Poe, who, during the last days of his life must attempt to solve a series of crimes based on his murders. The movie is beautifully gothic, but ultimately trivial. But we don’t pretend to be professional movie reviewers. Here’s what the pros had to say.
Jack Black is an accepted comic genius, but his filmography is full of serious misses (Year One, Gulliver’s Travels). So it’s good to see him hit one out of the park with Richard Linklater’s Bernie, at least when it comes to his performance. The Wall Street Journal wrote that Black acted “with restraint, apart from brief spasms of self-enchantment, and has great fun in the process.” The Hollywood Reporter, which found Bernie “overly mild” as a whole, played up his “marvelously judged performance, which is drippingly ripe but pitched just enough toward seriousness to be entirely credible.” The Austin Chronicle simply called the role “one of his personal best.”
Still, all of Black’s brilliance would be wasted without a film to back it up, and it’s here that Linklater’s filmmaking talent comes in for its due attention. The New York Times called Bernie “gaudily vibrant” and “morbidly funny,” noting the “broad, slightly uncomfortable comic tone that makes it difficult—intentionally, I think—to know if you’re meant to be laughing or crying.” The New Yorker said it was “a smart movie, with a mordant satirical edge,” and the Los Angeles Times found it “so perfectly told it seems more like eavesdropping than moviegoing.” The Village Voice found Black “remarkable for his ability to be at once flamboyant and remote,” but still saved its strongest praise for Linklater’s unique and rigorously ambiguous artistic vision: “In its ornery eccentricity, Bernie spits off more ideas than any American movie in many moons, and it’s not reassuringly conclusive about any of them.”
Loser: The Raven
If there’s one legendary author it’s easy to imagine turning over in his grave, it’s the master of Gothic horror Edgar Allen Poe—and it looks like the new film The Raven will give him plenty of reasons to do so. Variety called the movie, which reimagines the writer as an avenging action hero hunting down a serial killer, “a squawking, silly picture that never takes flight.” The Boston Globe said it “might qualify as literary desecration if it weren’t so silly.” The New York Daily News equated it to “a night spent at Madame Tussards, watching mannequins strangle other mannequins.” The critics in addition blamed the film for wasting the substantial talents of John Cusack, who plays Poe. The San Francisco Chronicle said the actor’s “bristling intelligence” “still doesn’t make The Raven a particularly good picture,” and the Chicago Tribune commended his “mercurial skills as a leading man” in a film that was decidedly “eh.”
Roger Ebert, while noting that he thought Cusack was the perfect choice for Poe, argued that he was lost in a script that transformed the tortured, introspective author into a “melodramatic” hack “calling for the gifts of Nicolas Cage.” But perhaps even the master of overacting himself would have trouble breathing life into a movie that A.O. Scott of the New York Times called “incoherent” and “a welter of breathless incident and preposterous exposition” before suggesting, “I suspect Poe’s review of it would have been much more savage than mine.”