By Matt Fleming. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching movies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist I come outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “But Mom, Back to the Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.
Weekend At Bernie’s (1989).
Prologue: “Cool Summer.”
In 1989, it seemed that we had it all. The Berlin Wall began to fall, Indiana Jones went on his Last Crusade, and we finally got a Batman. The film world was high on fun. Someone, somewhere in the studio of 20th Century Fox, heard a pitch by Robert Klane about a fun beach movie. This movie would have hijinks, bikini-clad babes, fun summer times. This film would star a dead man, and be tentpoled by two young hot shot hunks. Andrew McCarthy, hot off 1987’s Mannequin, would portray the funny sidekick, and sweet-faced Jonathan Silverman, who cut his teeth in Caddyshack II, would be the straight man. Terry Kiser, of The Actors Studio, would be the centerpiece: a fun-loving corpse. To direct this movie, the man at the helm of the exquisite Sylvester Stallone action vehicle First Blood, Ted Kirchoff, would be courted. It sounds now, as it must have then, like a recipe for delicious filmic gumbo.
Whoops. Maybe a movie about a reanimated dead yuppie wasn’t the best idea. (Maybe it was exactly what filmgoers in 1989 wanted.) Spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t seen this already, you are probably already spoiled.
Part One: The Plot, or “It’s Just Bernie!”
Weekend at Bernie’s begins as many gems from the Reagan-Bush Era do: two young up-and-comers in the financial mean streets of New York, Richard (Silverman) and Larry (McCarthy), are working overtime for their firm when they discover a case of insurance fraud worth $2 million. When they alert their boss, cigarrillo-aficionado Bernie Lomax (Kiser), they are rewarded with a weekend sojourn to Bernie’s paradiso of a beach house. In reality, Bernie is guilty of the theft, and he tries to set his mafioso connections loose upon the unexpecting duo. Vito (Louis Giambalvo, Italian stereotype) decides rather to put the hit on Bernie, who is becoming a liability for his organization, as well as bedding his girl. Just before Richard and Harry depart, Vito’s hit man Paulie (large-eyed Don Calfa) ambushes Bernie and pulls his plug.
When our two protagonists arrive and get comfortable, they discover that Bernie is not just hungover from an island bender, he is actually bent. After much bickering over what to do, the roving island party that goes beach house to beach house arrives at Bernie’s place, and suddenly they are trapped by vapid drunkards and bikini-strewn babes. Out of nowhere appears Richard’s office crush Gwen (generically pretty Catherine Mary Stewart), and the two run off to make romance and slapstick. Bernie’s inanimate corpse manages to travel on its own for a bit, but eventually they return him to his bed. Unfortunately, Vito’s girl shows up and bangs the dead Bernie, which is witnessed by one of Vito’s henchmen. Convinced that Paulie has slipped up, Vito must send the hitman back to the island to finish the job.
The next day, while Larry is propping up Lomax (ever the life of the party), Richard discovers a bag of money and a cryptic phone message planning their murders. Bernie insisted that they wouldn’t be killed so long as he was around, so all they have to do is keep Bernie “alive” long enough to get off the island. What they don’t know is that Vito doesn’t care about them, so their paranoia just feeds into Paulie’s new mania at the reanimation of his hit. Hijinks ensue: the trio travel the island in an effort to escape, a speedboat plays human pinball with Bernie and some buoys, a shootout happens, and ultimately Paulie is hauled away to a looney bin while our two heroes escape the island relatively unharmed. The corpse of Bernie almost makes it to the morgue by the end.
You know, this movie always felt longer when I was a kid. Heh.
Part Two: The Cast, or “Two Men and a Smirking Corpse.”
In a movie like Weekend at Bernie’s, there are very simple concessions that must be made. First, we must like the two protagonists enough to care about their story. Second, villains must be caricatures, slightly over the top, and must elicit more laughs than credible threats. Third, there has to be a romantic subplot, someone to recoil in horror when she sees her new boyfriend hanging around a dead friend-of-the-family. Finally, and most importantly, the anti-human (alien, robot, Ernest P. Worrell, etc.) must find his way home in the end (in the case of Bernie, it’s a hole in the ground). In each of these stipulations, Weekend at Bernie’s excels.
In the role of Richard, our straight, white romantic lead, Jonathan Silverman translates his formative years of television and made-for-TV-movies into suave but silly success. His paranoia and naivete are balanced by his apparent book-smarts. Richard represents the nerd, fresh from business school, who believes love is real and insurance accounting is a real future. He is the idealist of the early ‘80s, yet to realize the dangers inherent in consumerist capitalism. Silverman is constantly in command, except when persuaded by his partner in crime, or when distracted by his love interest. What is potentially disturbing about Richard’s romance is the fact that his would-be girlfriend is “going back to school next week,” leaving the eternal struggle of separation and replacement looming over their island tryst. Silverman is doe-eyed in his chase, and plays the sweetheart half of a full personality best remembered from Andrew McCarthy’s performance in Mannequin. He is the super-ego of Bernie’s.
Speaking of McCarthy, although he is relegated to the comedic sidekick in Bernie’s, it is a role in which he flourishes. In formulaic Neil Simon fashion, he is the Oscar to Richard’s Felix. He is late to everything but the party, and he is, like Frankie, always telling Richard to relax. His Tommy Bahama shirts, constant pursuit of “tail,” or “trim,” or “good times,” represent the mid-’80s excess of the financial sector, the underachievers who luck into sex, drugs, and a whole lot of other people’s money. He is also the free spirit, much like the artistic side of his character Jonathan from Mannequin, whose eternally pursed lips belie the sadness of going after wealth and security instead of art school. He is the id of this film.
In a career performance, one only topped by the sequel, Terry Kiser translates his years of Stanislavski’s Method Acting toward reanimating a corpse. At the film’s outset, he is the final product of ‘80s financial excess, the true image of a Wall Street Wolf, consumed by excess. He’s bangin’ the mobster’s girl, imbezzling insurance money, and spending weekends in an endless binge of drink and drugs. His signature smirk, pasted on his face in eternity, resembles his living attitude of entitlement, and his death is emblematic of attitudes just before the stock crash known as Black Monday in 1987. The dream of the ‘80s is a dead man, literally walking. Kiser, as well as a very battered stuntman, turns this film into a magical realist fairy tale, and he really holds the whole premise together. Also, Bernie represents the ego.
As Gwen Summers, Catherine Mary Stewart is acceptable. The actress, much like the character, is easily replaceable. In keeping with the theme of ‘80s excess, Gwen is a temporary love. Richard is not only trying to bed her, but make her into a momentary sense of security in a fragile world. Her impending return to college reinforces the lack of permanence in Richard’s life. He lives with his parents, a source of discontent for Gwen, further impeding his ability to truly share himself with anyone (besides Larry). Gwen, as signified in her last name, is a summer fling, a passing fancy amidst the turbulence of his weekend at Bernie’s. Stewart is attractive and charming, but otherwise doesn’t stand out, and her career never seemed to benefit from this smash hit. In the sequel, she was replaced by Troy Byer, a low-rent Rae Dawn Chong.
In the role of hitman/crazy person Paulie, Don Calfa’s bug eyes carry much of the drama. (His eyes pop like those of Marty Feldman.) He expertly conveys the internal conflict of the man tasked with killing that which will not die. In the end, he is carted away to an asylum for correctly predicting Weekend at Bernie’s 2. Thankfully, he is still working in movies to this day.
The rest of the supporting cast is littered with bikini-babes, Italian stereotypes, and beach partiers. Director Ted Kotcheff makes a cameo as Richard’s dad, in his underwear (which I’m guessing was just his everyday wardrobe for this movie), and Jack Hallett (white man) gives a lot of gusto as “Tennis Pro Buying Bernie’s Car.” Also, according to IMDB, a young Skeet Ulrich is an extra.
Part Three: Conclusions, or “Halcyon Days of Our Lives.”
Weekend at Bernie’s is the apex of the ‘80s. Two hot, talented actors sealed their fates with this one silly premise of a movie. After the bombastic sequel, Jonathan Silverman spent two years as the lead in NBC’s The Single Guy, a so-so sitcom that attempted to rely on his unexplainable inability to secure a fictional girlfriend. In the case of Andrew McCarthy, acting just kinda took a back seat to his “career” as the broke-man’s Anthony Bourdain (but if Bourdain was a washed-up actor and not my fantasy best friend). Terry Kiser went on to another sequel, the subpar Mannequin 2: On the Move, where he was tasked with carrying a movie, as he had previously been literally carried by McCarthy and Silverman. After the two Weekends, Hollywood began seeking grittier, and also more saccharine, films. You could say that Weekend at Bernie’s and its ilk were the hair metal bands replaced by Pulp Fiction (Nirvana) and Forrest Gump (Candlebox).
However, the subtext of greed, aspirations, and an endless summer keep this movie prescient to our war-on-everything era. The dreams of the middle class and upward mobility seem to have died alongside Bernie’s overreaching carnal pursuits. We, the underclass, keep seeking a weekend of paradise, free from carting around the mistakes of those above us. In the end, the girlfriend is always “going back to school.” In an era where film properties of the past keep getting rebooted, I’d like to pitch this one to the merry pranksters of today, Seth Rogen and James Franco. The duo would make for a perfect Richard and Larry. Honestly though, the only person I ever picture as nouveau-Bernie is Colin Ferrell, but he just signed on to True Detective, so maybe someone else could adopt Bernie’s signature mustache/smirk combo. The original, as well as my remake, is best viewed right near the beach. Lord mercy.