Director Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused") turns a real-life murder case into a comic, troubling study of small-town mores.
The funny and beguiling Bernie recounts the curious case of Bernard Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director who became a pillar of the community in Carthage, Texas. Bernie, as everyone called him, took immense pride in his work, meticulously preparing and grooming corpses to ensure they looked their best to grieving relatives. Outside of the embalming room, Bernie sang at memorial services, comforted the bereaved long after their relatives had been buried, bought random gifts for people, organized fund raisers and helped anyone he possibly could.
Bernie was also gay, which might have been a problem for his devout, church-going neighbors, the sort of people who like to debate whether the wine Jesus created was fermented. But Bernie was so nice and pleasant and well-liked, everyone turned a blind eye to his homosexuality. Instead, they complimented his flair for wallpaper and curtain decors. Besides, what was up with the apostles, anyway? Weren’t they all confirmed bachelors too? And didn’t Jesus hang out with them all the time? Why should Bernie be judged?
Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset) sprinkles interviews with actual residents of Carthage into the movie, turning them into a sort of Southern-fried Greek chorus. The film is as much of a snapshot of small-town life and mores as it is the story of an intriguing real-life crime. Everyone in Carthage hates the widowed Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who inherited her late husband’s banking business and runs it like an imperious witch (she makes a hobby out of turning down loan applications). Mrs. Nugent was simply born mean: As a child, she used to tear up her sister’s homework for fun.
But this hateful, venomous woman is also lonely, and when Bernie shows her kindness and affection and asks nothing in return, they start vacationing together — on her dime, of course — and soon become inseparable. The town’s gossip mill churns into hyper drive. Is their relationship platonic or is there something more going on? Eventually, Mrs. Nugent rewrites her will and makes Bernie the sole benefactor to her fortune. And then he murders her.
Linklater co-wrote the screenplay for Bernie with Skip Hollandsworth, whose article for Texas Monthly about the case inspired the movie. Black is a revelation in the central role of a plump, likable man whose noble spirit and inner goodness are strong enough to make his community forgive the biggest of all conceivable sins. Yeah, he killed her. But she totally had it coming! Matthew McConaughey is terrific as the showboating district attorney who prosecutes Bernie despite the overwhelming public sentiment to leave the poor guy alone.
Normally, he’d be the hero of the piece, but in Bernie he’s practically the villain, because he’s coming after a character you’ve come to love. The question of why the law must always be upheld, regardless of consequences, gives this light, amiable movie a surprising heft and weight. You don’t want to see Bernie sent to prison — the world is a better place without that mean old shrew — but murder is murder, right?
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman.
Director: Richard Linklater.
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth.
Producers: Richard Linklater, Ginger Sledge.
A Millennium Entertainment release. Running time: 104 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Opens Friday May 25 in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place; in Broward: Sawgrass, Paradise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.