Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)

Weekend at Bernie's (1989) movie poster

director Ted Kotcheff
viewed: 03/07/2015

Clocking in with only 52% at Rotten Tomatoes and moderately better at IMDb with 62% positive ratings, 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s might not qualify in everyone’s book at a comedy classic.  Those meager estimations are partial testament to why I don’t endorse those site’s rating systems too much.  But as Google pulls those stats on its results pages at present, they would be one of the average person’s first assessments of the 26 year old comedy about “two schmucks” who try to ingratiate themselves with their boss by exposing corporate malfeasance only to become potential patsies of the corrupt titular Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser).

I’ve always liked Weekend at Bernie’s.  I don’t think I saw it when it was first in the theaters but rather on VHS or cable in the immediate aftermath, and I liked it pretty well from the very get-go.  I couldn’t tell you the last time that I’d seen it in part or in whole, but somehow, scanning the reaches of my movie-watching brain for movies that my kids might like, something triggered, and I queued it up.

The story of two low corporate cogs on vacation for Labor Day weekend with their sleazy, rich boss who is setting them up to be killed, only to find him whacked already, maybe isn’t the first thing one might think of a kid-friendly fare.  In fact, I’ve proven twice already in this post how hard it is to summarize simply in a sentence or two — even though it’s actually a pretty simple conceit that leads to rampant sight gags and slapstick humor.  These two schmucks, Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy (never better, really), have to run around with a corpse all weekend, trying to pretend Bernie is still alive for a spate of oddball reasons.

It’s directed by Ted Kotcheff, a strange and varied director, who really only came to my attention a few years back when I happened to watch his brilliant Australian nightmare film Wake in Fright (1971) (which I can never recommend enough).  He has also directed such notable flicks as North Dallas Forty (1979) and First Blood (1982), the first Rambo movie.  His comic timing and efficacy with characters isn’t showy in the least.  You’re not drawn to wonder about who made Weekend at Bernie’s, you’re just along for the ride, which in a lot of ways, is why the movie is so funny and effective.

Shot in parts in late 1980’s Manhattan and various coastal spots in North Carolina filling in for some fictional New York getaway, aspects of the film have always stuck with me, like the New York summer that McCarthy and Silverman’s characters are suffering working through before the “weekend” begins.  McCarthy is particularly hilarious as the shlubby slob next to Silverman’s tidy button-up wimp.  And Kiser is fantastic in his establishing scenes as the sleazy boss and later as the inescapable corpse.  Also have to mention Don Calfa as Paulie, the hit man who keeps having to come back to off the seemingly deathless Bernie.

It may not be a classic at the level of His Girl Friday (1940) or Bringing Up Baby (1938), but it is funny.  In fact, I think it is probably one of the funniest of its era.

And I’ll tell you, Felix and Clara both loved it.  They thought it was hilarious.  So points to me for picking it out for them.

The title sequence is so cheap that it looks like a television show intro of the time.  You can kind of see that this was a sort of B picture comedy, one that out-performed itself as a cult hit once it got to video and cable.  They even made a sequel three years later, which I’ll admit that I’ve never seen, though seems to have some aspects of its own cult legacies.

It’s very funny, well-cast, with some great performances.  Really, maybe it should be better respected as a classic.  It’s old enough now.

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