PLOT: Bernie Tiede came to the small town of Carthage to work at a funeral home. He quickly made himself part of the community by being extra nice to the older women who had lost their husbands. And when Marjorie Nugent became available, he did all he can to comfort her in her time of need. After the couple had been together for awhile, she disappeared from society. This is one true crime story that you’d not expect.
BERNIE is a cheerfully dark comedy about a true life murder. It is one of writer/director Richard Linklater’s most entertaining features and it also stars Jack Black in his best performance to date. While it may feel a bit strange to laugh at such a serious situation, Linklater presents his story with such magnetism and small town sweetness it is hard to resist.
This creatively constructed film is presented both as a narrative and a documentary. Throughout BERNIE we meet several real life denizens of a little town in Texas called Carthage. They are all telling tales of one of the shining stars of their little town, a fellow named Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede (Jack Black). He was the assistant funeral director who knew how to make every single person feel right at home. Not only was he able to make anybody’s life seem damn near poetic, he was extremely well liked by what one character refers to as the “blue haired ladies.” This was especially true when he made contact with a bitter old woman named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). She was a wealthy widow disliked by the townspeople, and even her own family. Yet Bernie made her happy and she may have even been in love with the ever so cheerful gentlemen.
Nugent became so completely possessive of Tiede that he finally snapped and shot the 81-year-old woman. Thankfully she had already signed over all her belongs to her companion leaving her feuding family completely left out of her will. According to the real life interviews Nugent seemed to be a complete bitch, which is a bit sad considering she was the victim here. Thankfully, MacLaine is simply fantastic here as she brings life to the fiery old woman who may have just been lonely and sad while taking it out on others. Did she come across as mean and nasty? Sure, yet the moments when she is happy with her BFF Tiede are actually quite touching.
Jack Black is Bernie. With every gesture and the way he speaks he is absolutely wonderful as the extremely effeminate murderer. The way he sings a gospel hymn to the way he walks, this is the most impressive performance of his career. Even the connection between him and MacLaine is just magnetic. You can barely take your eyes off of this shockingly good on-screen couple. BERNIE works best when the two actors share screen time, especially on their regular date to a local restaurant. The “chewing” scene is at once disturbing, yet slightly heartbreaking. As strange as it sounds I was rooting for these two loony “lovebirds” even if I knew better.
Add another great performance to Matthew McConaughey resume - alongside last year’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Here he is perfect as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the one man in town who truly believes Bernie is a monster. Matthew has been taking some chances lately and he has also been doing some the best work he has ever done. His justice minded Danny Buck comes across just as honest and true to life as the real life citizens of Carthage.
Richard Linklater gives BERNIE’s story enough of an edge to keep the audience engaged. He may play a little favoritism to his title character, yet he doesn’t make the man a hero necessarily. Yet darn it all, this is a swell story. The use of actual interviews intertwined with the dramatic presentation is a unique and entertaining way to tell Bernie’s story. And for most of the hour and fifty minute running time, I was completely enthralled. Once we get to the final act, things slow down just a bit and some of humor gets lost in the severity of the situation. Thankfully as the film comes to a close the southern charm returns. Stick around for the credits as you get a few more interviews that really make Linklater’s latest as accessible as it is.