In honor of Swiss Army Man, which you can buy tickets for here, we're proud to present Over My Dead Body, a week-long series of articles on films that prominently feature corpses.
When we talk about tone, we’re usually referring to the composite of attitudes and moods expressed by a given work and how those attitudes and moods relate intersectionally with the responding attitudes and moods of the audience. Tone is important because when handled well, it can correspond with or even challenge what an audience thinks/how an audience feels about something; whether that something is a scene, a phrase, an action, or even a simple word that is representative of a given idea or topic. In film, it’s important to manage a tone consistent with what the movie’s trying to say, and to make sure that the audience responds accordingly to the tone that the movie gives off. If you manage the tone of a movie well enough, you can show crass and potentially offensive subject matter without offending the sensibilities of an audience by maintaining a “light”, “inoffensive”, “comedic”, or “informal” tone, which are all ways of saying that a movie doesn’t take itself or its subject matter very seriously.
This is a large part of what makes Weekend at Bernie’s work as a comedy. Taken at its word, the plot of Weekend at Bernie’s is pretty dark. Richard, a low level employee at an insurance company, discovers that someone is committing insurance fraud and stealing from the company. Richard takes his close friend and co-worker Larry with him to present the findings to their boss, Bernie Lomax, unaware that Bernie is actually the one doing the stealing. Bernie feigns approval, and invites the boys to his beach house to go over the numbers and hang out. Bernie then commissions his partner and mob boss, Vito, to send his hitman Paulie to kill the boys when they reach the beach house so he can continue his insurance fraud undeterred. But since Bernie is sleeping with Vito’s girlfriend, Tina, Vito sends his hitman to kill Bernie instead, and by the time Richard and Larry arrive to the beach house, Bernie has already been killed. The boys consider contacting the authorities until they observe the beach community that regularly uses Bernie’s house as a party spot doesn’t realize Bernie’s body is a corpse. So, Richard and Larry bank on the beach community’s ignorance and manipulate Bernie’s dead body as a way to stay at the beach house for the weekend.
On the surface we’ve got some serious stuff here. There’s the infidelity between Bernie and Tina that drives Vito’s vengeful betrayal and murder of his partner. There's also Bernie’s attempted murder of his own employees as consequence of his greed. On a more introspective level, the fact that none of the people Bernie interacts with on a regular basis notice he’s dead is a very cynical view of the transience of human relationships in the upper-class, especially when paired with the hedonistic tendencies the beach community displays. Not to mention the moral ambiguity and general horror of manipulating a dead man’s body as a way to stay at his house for a weekend.
But Weekend at Bernie’s doesn’t give a shit about any of that.
While these various plot points might make a decent dramatic springboard for a more emotional movie, in Weekend at Bernie’s they are merely setup for the movie’s central joke, which is the boys’ maintenance of the facade that Bernie’s corpse is still alive, and the silly things that result from their efforts. The movie uses small surface-level details to indicate that none of the dramatic setup going on is really all that important: When Bernie meets with the mob to discuss Richard’s and Larry’s assassination at dinner, the camera continuously cuts to shots of Tina using her foot to play with Larry’s dick under the table, as well as closeups of her hyperbolically lustful reaction to Bernie’s presence. When Paulie kills Bernie, he does so quickly and nonviolently through a painless poison injection, without any sort of struggling or in-movie ruminations on the nature of violence. And the movie establishes pretty quickly after Bernie’s death that no one is going to notice his body is a corpse, no matter how closely or intimately they interact with him. The way these events play out onscreen shows the movie’s attitude towards them is not a serious one, and the tone we pick up with regards to death is therefore light and inconsequential.
Which isn’t to say that everything in Weekend at Bernie’s is completely without levity. The movie begins by establishing the relationships between its leads, Richard and Larry, as young men who rely on each other to break through the monotony of their day-to-day lives as low-level employees at an insurance company through encouragement and banter. Richard shares his findings with Larry and brings him along to hopefully and mutually collect the benefits of an impressive finding Richard could have easily introduced to Bernie alone. These interactions, as well as the continuation of the supportive relationship the two young men maintain throughout the movie, suggests the film takes their friendship seriously. And the same could be said for the relationship between Richard and his love interest Gwen, whose relationship is continuously shown onscreen through a series of awkward and genuinely sweet romantic moments.
This combination of differing attitudes works in the movie’s favor. The effort that Weekend at Bernie’s puts into displaying the playful, funny and romantic relationships between its three leads, in combination with the light-hearted and inconsequential attitude the movie has towards death, allows the movie to function somewhere in the middle. The darker aspects of Weekend at Bernie’s can be considered humorous and fun without necessarily offending the audience’s own attitudes towards death, while the more personal depiction of the lead characters’ relationships allows the audience to relate themselves to Richard and Larry in a way that makes their actions more palatable.