A True Crime story – In 1997, in the town of Carthage, Texas, the body of wealthy, epically bitchy widow Marjorie Nugent, 81, was found in her freezer, shot four times in the back. Beloved local funeral director Bernie Tiede soon confessed to the murder so the District Attorney took him to trial and won a conviction. Director/writer Richard Linklater’s comic take on this story is the new film BERNIE.
Bernie (played by Jack Black) is well-regarded by his boss not only for his skill in dressing up the deceased, but in subtly pushing more expensive coffins on their families. He’s a pudgy, effeminate man who sings with a church choir and is the director and leading man in a local production of The Music Man. Is Bernie gay? One Carthagian notes: “He just loves hugging and kissing the old ladies, but a woman his own age he wouldn’t give the time of day”, but despite being “a little light in the loafers”, he’s one of Carthage’s most popular residents. Bernie takes an interest in the town’s newest widow, the crotchety multimillionaire Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). As the first person who has shown this widely-despised person any kindness (her own grandkids are suing her), Bernie charms the old woman to such an extent that she treats him to first-class world travel and nights at the opera. Bernie leaves his job at the funeral home to become her full-time companion, but when Margie becomes too demanding, treating him like a servant rather than a friend, with non-stop put downs and nagging, Bernie does a slow burn until he is ultimately fed up enough to gun her down in her garage. He keeps her death a secret for several months, doling out her fortune to the people of Carthage in a string of charitable acts. The D.A., Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is so certain that the town would acquit the well-liked man despite his confession that he gets the trial moved to a more backwoods county.
BERNIE is a well-played true crime story that rockets along without a dull moment. The story is mixed with talking head interviews with a couple dozen of Carthage’s resident busybodies. Linklater uses a combination of real East Texans and actors (including McConaughey’s mom) for these roles, a device rich in dialect-strewn humor that works as a balance against the murder and humiliation at hand. These folks find it strange that Bernie has befriended Marjorie, but less strange that he’s murdered her. The writing (or improv) by Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth is sharp in these sequences and many of the film’s best lines coming from the townsfolk, one who describes neighboring Austin as “the home of girls with hairy legs and liberal fruitcakes”.
As a high-energy dandy with a yearning desire to please others, Jack Black sheds his wild-man persona and plays Bernie fairly straight (so to speak). There’s Black’s trademark flash of mischief, but Bernie is complex and mysterious and the actor is careful not to slip too far into caricature. It’s a revelatory performance, a unique, sad character and those who claim that Jack Black is a one-note actor of limited range should really see the prissy way he walks, and the sincere way he cries and the way he sings gospel in BERNIE. The movie’s probably too slight for Oscar talk, but Black deserves to be in the running. Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie with very little dialog, just angry glares and curt demands, and while the actress seems underused, it’s a realistic portrayal of the type of woman who’s lonely and bitter through no one’s fault but her own. The connection between Bernie and Marjorie seems real and the film is at its best when these two are sharing screen time. A scene in a diner where Bernie scolds Marjorie for her eating habits; “You really don’t need to chew refried beans that much”, is poignant and genuine and they make a classic on-screen couple. BERNIE has a homespun and casual tone which nicely reflects the Texas setting. Like Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater (a native Texan) is a director who’s never formulaic. With an accomplished and eclectic body of work that spans mainstream and independent fare alike, Linklater uses the medium of cinema to pursue subjects he finds interesting and with BERNIE, he’s made one of the best films of the year so far.
4 1/2 of 5 Stars