Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in “Bernie”
Watching “Bernie,” director Richard Linklater’s (“School of Rock”) darkly comic, and apparently true, tale is like sitting on a porch in a small Texas town on a hot summer’s day listening to local gossip while drinking lemonade. Linklater’s ear for the way people talk is spot on…and maybe it is due to the fact that he is interviewing those who actually knew the real life Bernie Tiede. The film’s trailer announces right up front that this is true story.
“Bernie” is a film that intelligently combines both narrative and documentary film making techniques to create a story that is a combination of myth and truth. The film stars Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.
Black plays the titular character, an assistant funeral director who is just about the most liked man in small town Carthage Texas. Bernie can belt out “Amazing Grace” at a funeral, instruct on how to put just the right amount of rouge on a corpse, direct and star in a community theatre production of “The Music Man” and say just the right to convince a customer to purchase a more expensive casket.
Black takes to the role of the over weight, dapper, neat, effeminate, sexually ambiguous (“That dog don’t hunt,” as one of the interviewees so colorfully puts it) Bernie with relish. Bernie befriends Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy, and much disliked widow. Local tattlers say that Bernie is probably the only man in town who could tame Nugent, but tamed she is not. Although she and Bernie become fast friends (the movie could have headed in the “Harold and Maude” direction, but keeps the relationship on a platonic level) Nugent, over time, takes advantage of Bernie’s good nature. What follows plunges us into darkly comic territory.
MacLaine plays the mean spirited Nugent to perfection. She is clearly having a grand old time playing the controlling, demanding, rich widow accustomed to having everything her way. Black matches her energy in a more controlled manner as a nice guy who can be pushed just so far. Mathew McConaughey rounds out the film as Danny Buck, the local law enforcement who has deep suspicions about Bernie.
When all is said and done, Linklater has crafted a film that falls somewhere between a comedy, a drama, a character study and a real life event crossed with a fish story. The game cast and real life locals make “Bernie” a most unusual movie going experience.
Bernie, Director Richard Linklater, 2012,
Millennium Entertainment, 104 minutes, rated PG-13