Revisiting Weekend at Bernie's as Allegory: A Remembrance of the End of Reagan's America in Popular Cinema
Okay, you are probably reading the title of this post and thinking, "This sounds absolutely moronic! Who the hell writes such nonsense?" Well, on this blog, you will have read a wide variety of posts concerning all kinds of subjects, mostly about so-called "intelligent" middle-to-highbrow films -- that is, if you have been following. But this blog prides itself in being eclectic and sometimes "less exclusive" regarding its discourse on film, filmmaking and film studies. In recently viewing 1989's now-classic "stupid comedy" tour-de-force Weekend at Bernie's following an exhausting 12-hour shooting-day at work (hey, I do have times and particular moments where I need "cinematic sustenance" apart from the often cerebral art-house offerings I voraciously consume 90% of the time), I was strangely attentive during this viewing in considering the era in which the movie was conceived and created, and what it has to say (yes, say!) in retrospect about a very precisely distinguished end of an era. Okay, so enough self-justification.
For those of those who are not familiar with Weekend at Bernie's, I suppose you can say it is a riff on Alfred Hitchcock's dark comedy The Trouble With Harry (1955), which concerns a corpse that keeps reappearing often in the unlikeliest of places. It tells the story of "two schmucks" low on the corporate ladder at a Manhattan insurance company who get invited for the weekend to the so-called "Hampton Island" luxury mega-home of their salt-of-the-earth boss Bernie to sort out a $2 million error in the company. When they arrive, Bernie has been murdered and an impromptu party spontaneously launches in Bernie's pad with bizarre guests armed to the teeth in champagne, peculiar banter and the best (or worst) in late 80's fashion. On a tangent, I ask you, what was it with the color turquoise being so in style in 1980's America? How long will the party go on until the bikini-clad "babes" and coke-sniffers realize that Bernie is a corpse? Getting a sense of the allegory early on now? Good. Ultimately, the two schmucks must make it appear to the party guests and to the seriously confused hitman who rubbed him out that the dead Bernie is very much alive, even if keeping up the illusion means propping him up and sometimes unwittingly inflicting a wide variety of painful slapstick on a man who should very well be resting in peace. Hijinks ensue.
The word "illusion" is of the essence here and I will follow up with that. Check out a clip from the film below in which the schmucks find themselves in the presence of their corporate-superman boss. This sequence is followed by a scene involving Mafioso characters explaining to Bernie that they, too, have become corporatized.
So what's all this about Reagan? I maybe being really over-analytical -- in fact, I know I am being over-analytical, but who cares because there are times when being over-analytical can be fun -- but it is possible for Weekend at Bernie's to be viewed as allegory. "Dude, man! Far out!" Seriously, bear with me, here. There were a fair number of major Hollywood film comedies throughout the mid-to-late 1980's which could have been and were branded "yuppie films". Predominantly, these yuppie films were shot in New York City and, consequently, these films characterized a conscious popular desire of the time: to "make it," to ascend to the throne of wealth, success and prosperity, to live it up in the U.S.A. in the classic capitalist tradition. Studio products often even used yuppiedom and the midtown corporate obelisks where yuppiedom prevailed without rival as a milieu for a number of formula-stories. There is the young-innocent-abroad story (e.g. The Secret of My Success, Wall Street), updated versions of timeless fables about things like wish-fulfillment (e.g. Big) and comic tales about the glass ceiling and women in the workplace (e.g. Baby Boom, Working Girl, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead). Fascinatingly enough, whereas the 70's yuppie film (if such a thing were to exist) would fancy the theme of escape, in the 1980's, the theme of escape was unfashionable, because the need to "make it" was so pervasive and deeply rooted in an era of Reaganomics and Reagan-era economic policy. Compare that to the later escapist wish-fulfillment of 1998's Office Space a full decade later. A decidedly much different world had taken hold by that time. Also, in the 80's, the presence of a fashionable jingoism drove a great deal of these yuppie films. "America's the best!," "We rock!," "We're number one!," etc...or even, "The corporate world is America!," "Get them before they get you!," "Win! Win! Win!" -- social Darwinism and hot-blooded national pride during the decade of Cold War tension, perestroika and glasnost.
In Weekend at Bernie's, two underlings, or "schmucks" to be consistent with the movie's nomenclature, who are intent on making it big in the Reaganomics-driven 1980's corporate world are initially traumatized when the boss they so fervently idolize and worship dies unexpectedly once they arrive for what they believe will be a wild, mirthful, frolicsome weekend. The salt-of-the-earth Bernie is a symbol...the very symbol of success, of corporate wealth, of fortune, of prestige, of the corporate superman-on-the-move in the 1980's, of 1980's excellence while a GOP ex-actor played cowboy in the Oval Office.
This is where allegory enters. The success-consumed (and now traumatized) schmucks, who both have mega-delusions of corporate grandeur, thus provide the illusion to the other characters that this human symbol of corporate success (and the popular pursuit of it) is not dead but very much alive amidst rapidly evolving times. There is no life left for the symbol and what it signifies after it has been cut short, but the illusion to unsuspecting others (the teeming masses in the context of the allegory) is what matters. The American people wanted largely to sustain the illusion of such, even if it soon proved impossible. At a point early on, Andrew McCarthy's character admires the at-that-point alive Bernie ("Beautiful apartment, house at the beach, babes, a boat, a car...do you know how much it costs to park a car in Manhattan every month? More than my rent!"). In this respect, Weekend at Bernie's is the ultimate allegory for America at the conclusion of Reagan's World. Also, the two lead characters juxtapose each other quite considerably. Jonathan Silverman's naive, straight-laced, idealistic Richard ("All this can be yours if you set your goals and work hard") seriously offsets the sloppy and fun-loving but world-weary defeatist Larry ("My old man worked hard and all they did was give him more work!"). Early on in the film, one of the two schmucks laments, "We're gonna be here our whole lives!" when they find themselves in the office at work on Saturday, and of course it is the defeatist who makes this comment. In Bernie, the symbol of "making it" in corporate America, provides them with a role-model, a god in a corporate world that lacks a God. Weekend at Bernie's characterizes the end of 80's yuppiedom just as a film like Visconti's The Leopard (1963) characterizes the Risorgimento and the end of the opulence of the elite class in Italy.
Isn't this fun, guys? It just goes to prove that virtually any film can be looked at in a variety of ways and with different methods of interpretation. So what does all this prove? Maybe nothing ultimately, but at least to me, this is what I am attempting to communicate: every film made is indicative of the times and the spirit of the times (in this case, the economic times) within which it was created. Look at a lot of the box-office hooey we are witnessing now amidst economic crisis. Even a silly "non-think" movie like Weekend at Bernie's can act as a historical marker and can characterize a time in the past where a sentiment(s) was prevalent in the popular American psyche. I was five when Weekend at Bernie's was released. I was not conscious of the economic shifts occuring in the world around me. Now I can look at the film and absorb a sense of what it meant to live in an era when the last breath of that era was being drawn. With this in mind, is Paul Blart, Mall Cop a historical film? It may be more Hollywood nonsense, but it is certainly historical and connotes the spirit of these often discouraging (economic) times.
Now onto Weekend at Bernie's 2 as allegory. Hmm...ouch, that's a tough one. Sorry, guys. You're on your own with that one!