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Plenty of articles have been written about the Summer of 1989 – one of the last great seasons for movie-goers as every week brought with it what would become a long-time viewer favorite. What hasn’t been written about – but should be – is a tribute to one of the great sleeper hits of the decade. Yes, I’m referring to WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S – a silly looking comedy that became an unlikely success pitted against the likes of Batman, Indiana Jones, a “Lethal Weapon” sequel and a myriad of other, more expensive studio films populating theaters at the time. While a surprise success upon its July 7th opening, the movie has remained a perennial favorite at the Aisle Seat – so much that it feels like this summer is the perfect time to extol its virtues.

If you haven’t seen it, “Weekend At Bernie’s” is really the perfect summer comedy. The movie was sold on the basis of its slapstick gags involving its title corpse – yet this part of the movie only encompasses its second half, and specifically its last half-hour. The big surprise is that the rest of the film is just as good – legitimately funny, well constructed, appealingly acted and tonally right, there’s a reason “Weekend At Bernie’s” has a devoted fan base, even if it seems to be continually under-served in the home video market.

Robert Klane’s screenplay is simple in its concept: Larry (Andrew McCarthy) and Richard (Jonathan Silverman) are two young employees at a NYC insurance firm who uncover that their boss, Bernie (Terry Kiser), is being ripped off. Of course, it’s Bernie himself that’s cooking the books, leading him to contact his mob connections to rub the guys out as they head to the Hamptons for what they believe is a weekend hobnobbing with Bern and the locals. The tables are turned, though, when Bernie’s mob boss pal recognizes that his wife is having an affair with him, sending his hapless hitman off to dispose of Bernie instead – which leads to even more complications once Larry and Richard have to keep up appearances and pretend Bernie is still alive and kicking. Or at least moving…every once in a while.

“Weekend At Bernie’s” sounds morbid but it’s not – in fact the film is high energy, breezy and engaging right from its opening frames. Though they’re not Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello or Lemmon & Matthau, Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman generate a lot of chemistry together – McCarthy’s free-wheeling Larry trying to throw caution to the wind and get the comparatively buttoned-down Richard to stop worrying about the dead and romance a college intern from work (Catherine Mary Stuart) instead. McCarthy, who appeared in “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty in Pink,” never had a bigger hit than here, and he works well playing off Silverman’s comparative everyman, who indulges his whims just enough to make the movie’s farcical plot kick into motion. When that happens, “Bernie’s” becomes downright hysterical, even with most of the movie’s gags having been tipped off in its theatrical trailer.

Director Ted Kotcheff’s prolific filmmaking career is dotted with a mix of long-forgotten titles and several pictures that morphed into virtual classics. Even though he’s never been viewed as an auteur, there’s something to be said for a director able to turn out pictures as varied as “First Blood” and comedies as lithe as “Weekend at Bernie’s” – here, Kotcheff displays an assured hand in every regard, taming the most morbid instincts of writer Robert Klane (whose checkered career output included the distasteful Tom Selleck/Don Ameche Alzheimer’s “comedy” “Folks!” and bitter George Segal/Ruth Gordon collaboration “Where’s Poppa?”). This film never goes overboard in a way that a picture from today would with the same material, which makes its funniest scenes all the more effective – all to Kotcheff’s credit.

The movie is punctuated with a mostly low-key score from Police guitarist Andy Summers, its main musical contribution being the infectious song “Hot and Cold” performed by Jermaine Stuart – but it nevertheless helps “Weekend at Bernie’s” establish a mood that separates it from a lot of the decade’s comedies. Fashions aside, the movie still feels fresh because it’s not anchored into its era the way that, say, John Hughes’ movies are – a few tweaks here and there and the picture’s formula could work in any time frame.

That’s the sign of a comedy that endures, and “Weekend at Bernie’s” is most certainly that. I didn’t see the film theatrically but finally got around to it when I rented the VHS in college. Even watching the movie by myself I was floored that, yes, the film is legitimately hilarious. I screened it for my parents, friends, even my Aunt who was staying with us after having Orthoscopic surgery. She laughed so much, I had to show the movie to my Uncle several days later when he came to pick her up!

What’s surprising is that, even for a movie with a cult following, no label has ever given the film a Special Edition home video release. We’ve seen films with little fan bases granted commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes – and yet “Bernie’s” buffs have had to make due with merely competent, no-frills releases across various formats.

While we await that long overdue package, it’s time to give a tribute to “Weekend at Bernie’s” now that Labor Day is in our sights, the time of the year they gather in the Hamptons for a soiree only Bernie could throw.

 

 

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...and the director even makes an on screen cameo appearance in a really funny scene.

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