Directed By: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Tag line: "A story so unbelievable it must be true"
Trivia: Several real residents of Carthage, Texas who knew the real Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent appear in the film providing commentary on the events
The title character in Bernie, a 2011 comedy / drama from director Richard Linklater, is not your typical Jack Black wise-ass. He’s a far cry from Barry, the over-opinionated bully in 2000’s High Fidelity, and is nothing at all like J.B., the delusional, foul-mouthed musician from Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. Hell, he doesn’t even have anything in common with Dewey Finn, the volatile rocker-turned-school teacher in Linklater’s own 2003 flick School of Rock.
So what was it about the actor that made him right for this particular role? Damned if I know. But I’ll tell you this: Black disappears into the part of the kind-hearted, slightly effeminate funeral director from Carthage, Texas, who befriends a lonely but much-despised widow. As I was watching Bernie, I had to keep reminding myself I was also watching Jack Black. It’s easy to forget it’s him.
Based on a true story, Bernie relates the tale of Bernie Tiede (Black), assistant funeral director and all-around great guy. Active in the community, Bernie befriended practically every resident of Carthage (including the men, despite the fact some thought he was a bit of a sissy). He even won the love and respect of wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), considered by many to be the meanest woman in East Texas. Over time, what began as a friendship blossomed into something more, with Bernie accompanying Marjorie on trips to Europe, New York, and even Acapulco. Eventually, Bernie cut his hours down at the funeral home and became Marjorie’s personal assistant.
For a while, it seemed like the perfect arrangement. Then Marjorie started putting demands on Bernie’s time, insisting that he be at her side most of the day. She hated the fact he volunteered at the local theater, or spent hours on end flying a small plane (along with everything else, Bernie was a novice pilot). Having been a people person his entire life, Bernie didn’t like having to give up his friends, nor did he enjoy Marjorie’s verbal abuse (she insulted him frequently). So, one afternoon, as the two were walking to the car, Bernie picked up a high-powered air rifle and shot Marjorie four times in the back, then stuffed her body inside a freezer in the garage.
He might have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for Marjorie’s pesky stockbroker, Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux), the only person in town actively looking to speak with the elderly widow. Following a brief investigation, Bernie was arrested for first-degree murder (a full nine months after the shooting). District attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) promised to throw the book at him. One problem, though: nobody in Carthage wanted to see Bernie put away, and a few were actually happy he killed the old lady! With his fellow citizens hounding him to set Bernie free, Davidson did the only thing he could: move the trial to another city. But would even an impartial jury convict a nice guy like Bernie?
Shirley MacLaine is predictably excellent as the overbearing Marjorie, who during her early days with Bernie seems to be a changed woman (he convinces her to attend church services, and she accompanies him to various art shows and theater events). But soon the real Marjorie resurfaces, and it’s more than Bernie can bear. Even a simple lunch date turns acidic; as the two are eating, Bernie tries his damnedest to stop Marjorie from chewing her food 25 times before swallowing (which was pointless, he argues, seeing as she was chewing refried beans). Though not a well-developed character (we learn more about Marjorie after her death than we do while she’s alive), MacLaine still manages to make her believable. McConaughey is also strong as the charismatic D.A. who can’t understand why his friends and neighbors are supporting a murderer, and Linklater’s decision to include documentary style interviews with the townsfolk (some real, others portrayed by professional actors) was a stroke of genius (their insights, presented throughout the movie, act as a sort of narration track, and it’s these interviews that get some of the movie’s biggest laughs).
But Bernie is all about Jack Black, who is near-flawless as the odd, lovable lead character. An overly generous individual who went out of his way to make others happy (he would buy gifts for people for no reason at all), Bernie Tiede, who first moved to the area ten years before the murder, immersed himself in Carthage, joining the church choir and assisting the theater with their musical productions. As with any small town, rumors circulated about Bernie, with some believing he was gay. His boss at the funeral home, Don Leggett (Rick Dial), was convinced Bernie was asexual, even after he started seeing Marjorie (it was a strange relationship. to be sure: not entirely romantic but definitely more than friends). As Bernie, Black wins over the audience as quickly as the real Bernie won over his hometown, and while the shooting is both sudden and disturbing, there’s never a moment when we aren’t on his side.
It might not be as widely known as some of Black’s other movies, but Bernie reveals what the actor is capable of, and I only hope he changes things up again in the future like he did here. The “typical” Jack Black character has its good points, but in Bernie he shows us he can do so much more.