Ted Kotcheff’s moth-bitten, notoriously macabre comedy Weekend at Bernie’s is best—and most rewardingly—revisited as an unintended rumination on the queasy moral crises of Reaganomics-era America. While traipsing the corpse of a mob-whacked insurance tycoon around his $2 million beachside Hamptons mansion for a weekend, getting laid is nevertheless priority one for dum-dum antiheroes Richard (Jonathan Silverman) and Larry (Andrew McCarthy). But as the issue of Bernie’s death begins to eclipse Richard’s accursed attempt to woo his hot co-worker love-interest, Gwen (Catherine Mary Stewart), the film plays like a live-action elaboration on the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio, but for teenagers looking to catch a glimpse of their future awkward adult selves.
That the gags are terrible doesn’t dilute the casual, old-fashionedness of their execution: They build up and play out in a way that feels uncannily like satire, except all the characters can spit out is empty, nacho-cheesy boilerplate. There’s a scene where Richard—a gawky analyst in a salmon-colored dress shirt and glimmering suspenders—tells Gwen that his parents are dead in order to win some kernel of sympathy. Tim Matheson made this type of fuckery hilarious in Animal House with his knowingly supercilious performance-within-a-performance; Silverman simply comes across as a liar and a doof. Sure, it’s mean-spirited, but more to the point, it’s a blown opportunity to reveal anything about the characters other than (a) he’s a coward and (b) she’s gullible.
Kotcheff and screenwriter Robert Klane invest in two predicating tropes that would be unlikely today. First, the film doesn’t even try to convince viewers that Richard or Larry have any real ethics or humanity, which make their stakes the opposite of involving. Sometimes these ’80s comedies repackage awkwardness and stupidity as sexy and fun: The dumber you feel, the more sense it all makes. Second, the gags are allowed to ring hollow, with Kotcheff—perhaps unintentionally—toying with pace and mood in ways that do, in fact, recall his grotesquely sarcastic masterpiece Wake in Fright. Bernie’s mega-rich friends are so drunk and coked-up that they fail to notice he’s dead, making the film a miserably drawn-out exercise in willful suspension of disbelief—not the audience’s, but the supporting cast’s. Well before a little boy is waving a magnum around and blindly firing toward Richard and Larry, you’ll have long decided whether or not you were charmed by the film’s casual nihilism.
It doesn’t help that the mustachio-ed, spray-tanned Terry Kiser delivers a knockout turn as Bernie; despite the character being a sleazy and callous prick, his untimely death makes him weirdly sympathetic—or, at least, the most sympathetic character in the film. Even if it’s the movie’s backbone, it hurls the remaining hour of the film into permanent disrepair. Kotcheff, who was never notorious for his comedies, hangs it for dear life on this single, now-iconic image: Bernie’s lifeless cadaver, propped up stiffly with a pair of sunglasses and a beer. (And this one joke was somehow enough to spawn a sequel four years later.) Comparisons to Wall Street or American Psycho would be a stretch, but as a loopy, unintended parable of capitalism, the film doesn’t disappoint. Deep inside Richard and Larry’s bleak entanglement with the dark heart of the 1%, Bernie morphs into its most memorable character by default: both Mephistopheles and martyr.