Directed by: Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles)
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman, Richard Rochibaux, Brandon Smith
Most movies based on real events, identify themselves as fact-based or inspired by or some similar caveat to suggest that a certain amount of license has been taken. Richard Linklater’s Bernie, on the other hand, offers two introductory titles. The first reads, “What you’re fixin’ to see is,” and the second, “A true story,” setting both the tone and the substance of the film. Under most circumstances, I’d take issue with such a claim, but since the film at hand is as much about the perception of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) by the folks of the town he lived in—and is delivered by them in interviews—as it is about Bernie, I’m inclined to let it slide. In reality, I guess the film is part dramatization and part something like a documentary—though maybe gossip-mentary would be nearer the truth.
So what exactly is this strange hybrid known as Bernie? Well, that’s not so easy to say in any convenient summation. Is it a true crime story? Is it a very strange love story gone wrong? Is it a loving look at a small Southern—in this case, Texas—town? Is it a satire of such places and the politics therein? Well, yeah, it’s all those things—and probably a few others I’ve neglected to mention. The remarkable thing about it is that Linklater and his cast somehow manage to make it all hang together as a whole. In terms of storytelling and in approach, the film is quietly unorthodox, but I can’t think of another approach that would work nearly so well.
The film is based on a 1998 article by Skip Hollandsworth—who co-authored the screenplay with Linklater—and is set in Carthage, Texas (“Behind the Pine Curtain—where the South begins” is how one local describes it), a sleepy little town that exists somewhere between the boosterish gush of the chamber of commerce and one local woman’s forthright assessment, “Oh, hell, most people live in Carthage because they were born here.” And easily the best-liked—maybe even loved—person in the town is Bernie, the assistant funeral director (the term mortician isn’t used anymore, we’re told). Oh, sure, Bernie might be “a little light in the loafers” (as it’s called in the film) with the interests of a caricature “show queen,” but he’s just so darn nice that everbody likes him—and anyway he’s in a setting where much that would cause talk elsewhere is dismissed as eccentricity. He’s unfailingly friendly, cares about his work, and is at his best and most appealing when dealing with grieving widows. It’s that last that sets the drama in motion when he sets out to thaw the “meanest woman in town,” Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who also happens to be the richest woman in town.
Wearing down her icy exterior—to the degree that is possible—Bernie becomes her best friend (well, only friend), confidante, travel partner and—who exactly knows what? He also becomes the sole heir to her estate, but that was not his aim. In fact, it seems that his aims are fairly guileless—at least until he starts feeling smothered by her demands and, in a moment of madness, shoots the old gal (with her armadillo rifle), puts her in the freezer and starts making excuses for her absence. Nobody much cares because nobody wants to deal with her or misses her. Well, nobody cares but her disinherited family and grandstanding District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey). What happens from there I’ll leave to the film, but I’ll say it’s unfailingly entertaining—strangely touching and a little troubling.
There are those who will avoid the film because of the presence of Jack Black. This is a mistake. Yes, he is unmistakably Jack Black—the trim mustache and conservative haircut don’t even try to disguise this—but it’s Black in a performance unlike any he’s ever given. He nearly disappears into a role that stops—as it must—short of caricature. He has to make us believe that the townfolk so love him that they either don’t care what he did, or simply refuse to believe it—and he does. But he’s not the whole show. Matthew McConaughey (an actor I usually like less than Black) and Shirley MacLaine do more than their share, while Linklater’s evocation of Carthage is little short of blissful. And don’t sell the townfolk short. It all comes together in one of the most unusual movies you’ll see this year. Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language.