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Looking Back at “Weekend at Bernie’s”

I appreciate the recent slew of articles that fondly remember the summer of 1989, particularly giving attention to Tim Burton’s landmark “Batman” and the effect it had on the zeigeist, appreciative audiences, worldwide box office receipts and the shaping of the modern day comic book movie. I love the film but I’m fond of most of the big summer movies from that year. Films that come to mind (and may merit upcoming film retrospectives of their own) include “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “The Abyss,” “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Parenthood,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and so-bad-they’re glorious classics like “No Holds Barred” and “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.” In the midst of all these high profile, massively hyped “event movies” (I didn’t even mention “Ghostbusters II” or “Star Trek V”), there was a little movie released during the fourth of July holiday weekend, called “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Twenty-five years later, we’re still talking about “Weekend at Bernie’s.” For some bizarre, tacky and glorious reason, this infantile comedy has become a classic. How on earth did this happen?

What many won’t remember but history shows, is that “Weekend at Bernie’s” was a hit in theaters. The long gone but once vital entertainment periodical, Premiere Magazine, once noted that “Weekend at Bernie’s” was “a real dark horse, grossing an astonishing $30 million.” Their “astonishment” wasn’t unfounded, as this strangely popular but unabashedly idiotic farce was savaged by film critics, had virtually no hype and had only an amusing trailer and a sly movie poster to sell it. It’s worth noting that, the following summer, the far-worse, even dumber comedy “Problem Child” was an out of left field hit in nearly the same manner.

A refresher for the uninitiated: this is the comedy about two unlikable yuppies who carry around the body of their dead boss, in order to pass themselves off as rich guests at their dead host’s lavish home. As played by Johnathan Silverman and an amusingly over-the-top Andrew McCarthy (whose intense money lust and determination to keep Bernie’s death a secret borders on psychotic), we’re meant ot find these guys “lovable.” They’re not, though it can be fun to see McCarthy, so soulful in teen romances, giving a performance is giddily manic and anything goes as any early Jim Carrey turn. The real trouper is Terry Kiser, playing Bernie as a greedy, scheming businessman, then as an elastic, indestructible corpse with an unfailing smirk. Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry” isn’t one of his better films and it came up short trying t pass off the corpse-that-won’t-go-away gimmick. Here, in a manner closer to “Police Academy” than Hitchcock, the premise is an excuse to see Bernie’s cadaver undergo a decathlon of comical abuse.
bernie poster2
Decades later, after “Bernie’s” became a bestselling home video and a main stay on basic cable, it oddly keeps resurfacing in pop culture, reminding us of how affectionate we regard it. A recent and especially sharp “SNL” skit, with (of all people) Robert De Niro, spoofed the film and dug into the tastelessness of its premise. There’s also that great joke on “Friends,” where Jennifer Anniston’s Rachel admits that, secretly, it’s her favorite movie. She may have been on to something.

Today, the film effectively stands as an unintentional spoof of the Me Decade, a dissection of the money-first, leave your soul at the door excess of the late 1980’s. One day, we may reference this movie as a sad vision of Power=Self Destruction as much as “The Wolf of Wall Street” (or, maybe we won’t insanely pair Martin Scorsese’s movie with this one).

While quite stupid, much of it is truly funny, mostly because the tone remains unfailingly cheerful, even as the jokes get truly sick. Nothing about a movie this dopey should hold up well. Oddly enough, even McCarthy’s Aloha shirt seems hip and savvy, in the same way the movie does overall.
I first encountered “Weekend at Bernie’s” on a red flight from Maui to Nevada. Watching it at midnight, while the rest of the passengers around me were visibly asleep, I found it to be a total gut buster of taste-free hilarity. Watching it back on the ground over the years that followed, it was never that funny again. For me, the movie peaked at 20,000 feet. My sleep deprived, 12-year old self enjoyed it as much as appreciative (and presumably intoxicated) audiences do today.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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