Weekend at Bernie’s and Dead Capital

(This post originally appeared on Thermidor)

The relationship between human endeavor and capital is symbiotic, but it’s unclear which will end up as the dominant partner. On the one end are Promethean visions of men using capital as an extension of their will, as Elon Musk bootstraps a Martian transit infrastructure through sheer force of personality (and reddit-friendly meme flamethrower sales). On the other is the specter of capital subsuming human identity to its own ends, as we become optimized cogs devoted to the replication of uncanny systems of control we can barely comprehend.

Weekend at Bernie’s is best understood not as a cheesy 80s comedy, but as a quasi-Landian work, where the dead hand of capital animates and controls the living more than the reverse. It opens with protagonists Larry and Richard heading into the office on a weekend, a descent into hell on a scorching Manhattan weekend. After arriving at their office, Larry says, “We’re going to be here our whole lives”, to which Richard responds: “Yep, I’m afraid so.”

They’re searching for the film’s MacGuffin: a two million dollar fraud in a life insurance scheme to over-monetize the dead, by paying out multiple times on contracts Bernie secretly controls. It turns out this scheme was at the behest of token Italian mobster villain, Don Vito, and Bernie demands he kill the two discoverers. But Vito doesn’t want to get back into that business – “We don’t do that anymore. We’re a corporation now. We’re in the market, we invest: real estate, car rentals, parking lots.”

Nevertheless, he agrees to send a man to take care of the two. But this is merely a ruse – his intent is to get rid of Bernie, who is getting “too careless, and too greedy”. Bernie dies, murdered by a faked overdose at the beginning of Act II, and the fun begins. When Richard and Larry cross the river Styx, from office hell to Bernie’s garden of earthly delights in the Hamptons, it seems no one quite realizes Bernie is dead.

The joke isn’t the mere incongruity of Bernie being dead while everyone treats him like he is alive – that would be merely grotesque. The joke is that Bernie’s role does not in fact require him to be alive, and does better post mortem: he is a better negotiator, almost doubling the price he can sell his Porsche; a better lover, satisfying his girlfriend as never before; a more generous neighbor, as everyone agrees his parties are more lit than ever; and a more cunning plotter, escaping secondary assassination time and again. Why is this the case? Because instead of Bernie doing the talking, it is his accrued social and financial capital. His silence allows these systems to proceed according to their own logic, with his participation reduced to an avatar of capital rather than a (incompetent) director of it.

This is when the film becomes a zombie movie of a very interesting kind. It’s a cliche to say “zombie movies aren’t about zombies” – it’s always a social critique (the Romero films), a depiction of the breakdown and reconstruction of society (The Walking Dead), or a representation of work left undone and haunting the living (Arnold Schwartzenegger’s “Maggie”). Bernie flirts with the third, as the mafia assassin sent to kill Bernie sees him seemingly animated time and again. But it is an inversion of this idea – Bernie’s death isn’t a premature end with threads left unresolved. It is rather a complete nullity. When Richard informs a guest “He’s dead”, he responds: “That’s the idea, isn’t it? Cheers.”

At the beginning of the second act, Larry raises a proposition: “Why don’t we just pretend he didn’t die?” But in what sense is Bernie dead, when his capital lives on?

If one were going to remake Weekend at Bernie’s, out of a desire to plunder exploitable 80s IP with a veneer of woke statement-making cyberpunk, here is how it would go down:

Bernie Lomax is a successful San Francisco venture capitalist, investing primarily in various blockchain startups and ICOs. His underlings, Larry and Richard, discover that in fact most of the ICOs are money laundering schemes to smuggle embezzled Chinese money into the US, with a nice kickback going to a third party – unbeknownst to them, Bernie himself. Naturally, he contracts on the dark web for their assassination, scheduled to be during an exclusive launch party he invites them to on Alcatraz.

When they arrive, they encounter a grotesquerie of San Francisco scenesters. It becomes clear as the evening goes on that this will degenerate into a nootropic-fueled polyamorous cuddle party, with a hint of the occult and cringe-worthy granting of affirmative consent. However, before they can partake, Bernie dies when he radically misjudges the dosing of his Shenzhen pharmaceuticals and slumps over his computer. Finding him, Larry and Richard rifle through his laptop in hopes of looting his crypto wallet, but instead discover his emailed contract to kill them, specifying it be done while he’s not around.

Cue shenanigans, as they attempt to get off the island with the corpse in the midst of the festivities, evading the sicario sent to liquidate them. Insert hapa love interest where convenient.

What could be more fitting for a movie like this, than capital arranging to pay the corpse of its own dead franchise?

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