Remakes tend to come about twenty to thirty years after a popular original work’s release. During that time, there’s usually an improvement in film making technology combined with the original fading into the pop subconscious. However, since the advent of home playback technology such as video tape recorders, DVD, Blu-Ray, and conversion to digital formats, finding the original without waiting for it to show up as late-night or weekend afternoon filler is easy. Even in the 80s, when Beta and VHS were gaining popularity, some works could only be found during late night double-features on local TV stations.
The 1989 movie, Weekend At Bernie’s falls into the desirable range. The title has fallen into the pop subconscious; people who haven’t seen the movie are aware that Bernie is dead and is being dragged around for plot reasons. The film may not cost much to get rights to; it’s nowhere near being a Star Wars or a Back to the Future in terms of namespace. The movie is also easily found on DVD, though.
Weekend At Bernie’s starred Jonathan Silverman as Richard, Andrew McCarthy as Larry, Catherine Mary Stewart as Gwen, Don Calfa as Paulie, and Terry Kiser as Bernie. The movie breaks down into three acts. The first act sets up the relationships between the characters. Richard and Larry are young up and comers at an insurance firm trying to track down a couple of million dollars worth of discrepancies. Finding that one person has received four half-million dollar payouts, they go to their boss, Bernie Lomax, with the proof. Bernie mentions that the deceased would have multiple policies with different payout times, except the policies involved were purchased after the beneficiary died. Bernie praises the hard work and invites Richard and Larry to his home on Hampton Island.
That problem solved, Larry forcefully encourages Richard to ask summer intern student Gwen out on a date. Said date goes well except for Richard exaggerating his living situation. Richard still lives at home with her parents thanks to New York’s high cost of living. Larry did off his apartment, but Richard didn’t think Gwen would appreciate the cockroaches living there. The ruse falls apart and Gwen is not happy to be deceived.
Bernie, in the meantime, Bernie is meeting with Vito (Louis Giambalvo), Vito’s girlfriend Tina (Catherine Parks), Vito’s assistant Marty (Gregory Salata), and Paulie. Vito is a mobster working with Bernie to use the insurance company to launder money, except the laundering has been discovered. Bernie’s solution is to have Paulie kill Richard and Larry; he’ll set things up so he won’t be around for the hit. During the dinner, Tina plays footsie with Bernie. When Bernie leaves, Tina makes an excuse to powder her nose and follows her out, not aware that Vito has sent Marty after her.
The Labour Day weekend arrives. Bernie is the first to the island, getting the murder-suicide set up. Paulie is a little early, at least from Bernie’e viewpoint. Paulie gives Bernie a lethal overdose of drugs and leaves him seated in a chair. Richard and Larry arrive on the island, find their way up to Bernie’s house and let themselves in. They look around for Bernie, expecting that he’s out mingling. Instead, they find his dead body and the drugs planted by Paulie. The first act is spent establishing who everyone is and why it’s safe to laugh at what will be happening to Bernie. Bernie Lomax is not a decent human being. Richard is also due some payback, but not to the same degree as Bernie.
The second act covers the island’s wandering party. No matter where the party starts, it always ends up at Bernie’s. Anyone and everyone on the island shows up. Richard and Larry, who haven’t called the police yet because Larry was concerned that they’d be blamed for Bernie’s death, watch as people talk to Bernie without noticing that Bernie barely reacts. Thanks to a lifeguard giving Bernie a massage, Lomax’s neck is broken, allowing him to turn towards or away from anyone talking to him. Almost everyone at the party is too self-absorbed to notice that Bernie Lomax is dead.
The exception is Gwen, whose family also has a place on the island. Gwen wants to thank Bernie for the summer internship. Richard, who was wanting to call the police again because someone needs to be told that Bernie is dead, hangs up and intercepts Gwen. She gets diverted while Richard and Larry remove Bernie from the party and dump him outside on the beach. With Bernie not around, Gwen decides to listen to Richard who is horrible at apologizing but is starting to come clean. They head up to a lighthouse to look around, when Richard is blinded by the light and falls through the trap door and down the stairs. He and Gwen wind up on the beach, a wonderful night, just Richard, Gwen, and Bernie’s body drifting in with the tide. Richard manages to get Gwen to leave, then grabs Larry to bring Bernie back to the house, where they put him in bed.
The night isn’t over yet. Tina arrives, angry that Bernie stood her up and as drunk or even more so than Bernie’s party guests. She storms up the walk and into the house, demanding to know where Bernie is. Richard and Larry stand aside when she retrieves a large knife from the kitchen, telling her he’s in bed. Tina drunkenly stumbles upstairs, throws open the door, and her mood changes on seeing Bernie. Thirty minutes later, Tina returns downstairs, much happier. When she leaves, Richard and Larry are in shock that even Tina hadn’t noticed. As Larry puts it, “I get yelled at if I just lay there.” Tina leaves, and Richard and Larry call it a day.
The final act opens the next morning when Richard wakes up at 11am. Larry is out on the porch near the pool playing Monopoly with Bernie. Richard wants to call the police, but Gwen arrives to again thank Bernie for the internship that she couldn’t do the previous night. Marty has let Vito know that Paulie is as rusty as the hitman thought, so Paulie has also returned to the island. While Richard tries to delay Gwen so that Larry can dump Bernie somewhere, Paulie sneaks up on the house. The hitman hears Larry running around overhead and is in the perfect spot for Bernie to land on him when dumped. After a brief struggle, Paulie chokes Bernie and finds no pulse.
Richard manages to ward off Gwen again, then goes back to the phone to call the police, this time using the phone with the answering machine. Instead of dialing out. he gets the conversation recorded between Bernie and Paulie with Lomax’s plans to kill the two schmucks with the caveat that Bernie cant be around. Richard and Larry figure the safest place to be is off the island with Bernie. Since no one knows Bernie isn’t dead, they figure making Bernie walk around with them is the best thing to do. They make a dash to the ferry and miss it by seconds. Paulie, though, hadn’t, and is surprised to see Bernie racing towards the ferry.
After some thought, Richard and Larry figure out there is another way off the island – Bernie’s boat. The initial escape has some minor problems, but they do get going, only to run out of gas. Paulie gets to the mainland first and hires a water taxi to get back to the island. Everything starts coming together, with Gwen finally getting to see Bernie only to be told that he’s dead. Richard tries to explain, but given his tall tales earlier, Gwen is skeptical. The skepticism disappears when Paulie returns and empties a revolver into Bernie. The hitman then notices the witnesses and tries to shoot them, except the revolver is empty. He pulls out a second gun and starts chasing Richard, Larry, and Gwen. Bernie is left lying on the floor, a leg blocking a set of stairs.
The chase ends when Larry takes the initiative to draw off Paulie while Richard and Gwen hide in a bedroom. He gets a lucky break when Paulie tries to push Bernie out of the way and gets kicked in the groin for his efforts. The hitman shoots off the rest of the bullets in his revolver at Bernie then starts to reload. Larry sees his best change, grabs the phone with its long cable, and starts wrapping Paulie up in it. He decks the hitman, who falls into a headlock from Bernie.
The police are finally called. Bernie is put on a gurney to be taken to the ambulance. Paulie is arrested and put into a straitjacket. Richard takes his first vacation to spend time with Gwen on the island before she goes back to school. Larry decides to stay a couple of days in Bernie’s home to get in on the wandering party. It’s a happy ending for almost everyone, even Bernie, who finally gets buried.
The movie works thanks to the writing and the cast. It’s a screwball comedy with people to cheer for and against. The film sets up who deserves what happens, for good and for ill. Bernie, being the cheating bastard he is, gets the worst of it. Richard, thanks to his lies to Gwen, has to go through a few trials himself. And despite Bernie being dead, the movie keeps things light as a comedy should be.
Remaking Weekend At Bernie’s needs to pay attention to the details. The first act sets up several non-literal Checkhov’s Guns in the first act that come back in the third to complicate Richard and Larry’s plans. Even when the audience knows who and what these Guns are, characters don’t. In many comedies, a lack of communication that creates problems that can be cleared up if people would just talk causes audiences to raise their disbelief. In Weekend At Bernie’s, while people talking would clear things up, the people who could have done something were too self-involved to notice Bernie was dead, Paulie wasn’t going to tell anyone except Vito and Marty that he killed Bernie with an OD, and Richard and Larry were given a reason to not let anyone know Bernie was dead. Thus, only the audience has all the information.
Casting will be important. Terry Kiser portrayed Bernie before and after the character’s death. The postmortem smirk Bernie kept up added to the comedy. Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy had a chemistry together that comes out on screen; it is easy to believe that they are friends despite the personality differences. The three actors work well together, which helps when Richard and Larry have to carry Bernie around. A remake will need actors who get along. The new Bernie will need to be good at physical comedy without speaking. Robert Downey, Jr, may be an ideal new Bernie; he can do comedy, see Tropic Thunder. The rest, I’m not sure of.
Location was a key element in the film. The setting was an island with limited access, no cars, just ferries and other boats. The limitations are to prevent an easy solution, just jumping into a car to take Bernie to the police station or the hospital. The isolation is needed. Problem is, while cell phones were rare, bulky, and expensive in 1989, in 2020, everyone has a smartphone. There has to be a reason why Richard, Larry, and Gwen can’t use one on the island. Poor cell coverage is a possibility, which allows for people still taking photos and videos of Bernie’s hijinks without them being uploaded right away. The proliferation of smartphones creates problems with remakes, really.
The final portion that needs to be done well in a remake of Weekend At Bernie’s is the writing. Small details at the beginning, such as Bernie negotiating for a Maserati, the fired handyman, and the gardener, all come back at the end. The remake has to show the Chekhov’s guns to the audience; hiding details from the viewers does no one any favours. The first act could be tightened up; it takes up a third of the movie, but the act also front loads the information needed for the rest of the film to work. Common advice from people using word-of-mouth to get friends to watch Weekend At Bernie’s is to wait out the movie until it reaches the island, so there is room to tighten up the first act. It will be a balancing act, get everything needed for the later acts set up in a quick enough time to keep the narrative flowing.
Weekend At Bernie’s looks like it should be an easy remake, but the devil is in the details. Digging into the film, there are many areas where a remake can trip up and fall short of the original.