Nobody is going to confuse “Weekend at Bernie’s” for a comedic masterpiece. Even though it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, it is mostly thought of with the kind of nostalgia you are vaguely embarrassed about. Like, “I can’t believe we liked that movie.” I look back on it fondly because it was a movie I loved as a kid. Still, its legend has endured in an odd way, and clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Twenty-three years after its release, the film continues to echo through our culture.
It’s obvious that “Weekend at Bernie’s” is not a political film. It’s a pretty straightforward albeit ridiculous story. But when we look closely at any movie that outperforms its box office expectations, we usually find that it has hit some kind of social or cultural nerve that was previously hidden. “Weekend at Bernie’s” is no exception. It seems in fact as if the movie was, at some point in its production, meant to be a sharp satire of ‘80s culture and economic policy, but it was watered down to be a cheap farce. Still, there remains a nugget of sharp satire that is worthy of being explored.
Bernie Lomax, the president of a successful insurance company, represents the new American Dream. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, young Americans dreamed of a family, a house in the suburbs, and a white picket fence. But when Larry (Andrew McCarthy) and Richard (Jonathan Silverman), two entry-level analysts, look at their boss, they see a man who has it all: a “beautiful apartment, house at the beach, babes, boats, cars.” The “go-go ‘80s” created an entire generation that sought not just to be financially independent but also to become masters of the universe and to attain all of the fleeting pleasures that came with it. Bernie is a manifestation of those goals, but while Larry and Richard may idolize him, the film is more interested in satirizing his lifestyle.
The movie’s centerpiece is a party scene in which half of the Hamptons show up at Bernie’s house shortly after he has died. Larry and Richard, still deciding whether to call the police, have him propped up on the couch and don’t have time to move him before the party quite suddenly arrives. It’s a surreal and funny scene that illuminates how shallow and self-involved the guests are. As they drift in and out of conversation with the corpse, a light is cast on the ‘80s upper-class mentality.
What we see is an entire class of people who are totally disconnected from reality. They are so focused on immediate fulfillment of their material desires that they do not even notice whether the person they are speaking to is alive. All they see is what he can do for them, and their goals do not even require a living being. This scene shows how materialism dehumanizes us, forcing us to de-emphasize human connection in favor of the acquisition of things.
It immediately brings to the mind director Hal Ashby’s “Being There,” the brilliant 1974 satire of Washington, DC and the culture of television. The dynamic is similar, but instead of a corpse, Ashby used an idiot. In that film, Chauncey Gardner, a middle-aged house servant, is thrust out into the streets of Washington for the first time after his employer dies, his only knowledge of the world what he learned from watching television. When his naivete is mistaken for sage wisdom, he becomes a hit among the D.C. power players, even garnering a meeting with the president. As Chauncey hits the cocktail scene and some of the most powerful people in the world become increasingly enchanted with him, the film shows the self-involvement and short-sightedness of our policymakers. This idea culminates in an absurd sex scene in which an unhappy Washington wife lures Chauncey to bed and gets herself off on his presence alone, while he sits idly by, watching television. “Bernie” contains a similar – if less satirically sharp – scene in which Bernie’s mistress has sex with his corpse, of course without noticing he is dead.
Given the current state of the economy and Hollywood’s eagerness to remake just about every movie released in ‘80s, I am surprised no one has gotten around to “Weekend at Bernie’s” yet. It seems a good fit for these times. Public antipathy towards corrupt CEOs is far higher now than it was in 1989, and resentment between generations – a theme present but largely unexplored in the original – is a theme that has found its way into several successful films this year already. How about this? Instead of an insurance magnate, make Bernie a financial advisor or hedge fund manager who is secretly bilking his clients out of millions in an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Hey, you wouldn’t even have to change the title.