I can honestly say there are few actors that I dislike more than Jack Black. In fact, my excitement and anticipation for a movie can be negatively influenced or shaped just by seeing his name attached. So it’s safe to say that it wasn’t Jack Black that drew me to “Bernie”. But the movie has several other things going for it that spurred my curiosity. First, “Bernie” was directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, a filmmaker I have recently grown to appreciate especially after seeing “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”. Then there’s the whole “based on a true story” thing about a funeral director in a small southern town. It sounded quirky and unusual yet featured several things that hit pretty close to home. Throw in what looked like a really peculiar looking role for Matthew McConaughey and I knew I needed to check this film out. I’m glad I did.
I wasn’t familiar with the real story of Bernie Tiede but I knew it was a highly unusual one. Jack Black plays Bernie, a funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. In the first few scenes we notice that Bernie is, shall I say, a very different individual. Yet despite his many eccentricities, he is adored by the small community. He sings in the local church choir, helps locals with their taxes, coaches little league baseball, and is known for the amazing attention and care he gives grieving families at the local funeral home, particularly the widows. Linklater employs a very effective and often times hilarious method of storytelling. The movie is constructed like a documentary and we are introduced to and learn about Bernie through snippets of interviews with the Carthage locals. Some of the locals are played by lesser known actors but sprinkled in are interviews with real citizens of Carthage who are familiar with the real Bernie and the situation that he found himself in. It’s quickly evident that the locals truly loved him.
Bernie befriends a mean, crusty old widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Marjorie is an extremely wealthy woman but she’s hated by the community and her family. She hits it off with Bernie after he handles her husband’s funeral and the two soon become inseparable. He takes her to dinner, helps her manage her affairs, and takes trips with her all over the world. Even as she grows more abrasive and abusive, Bernie is loyal and supportive. Again, Linklater tells us all of this through interviews with the town folks who aren’t a bit shy about sharing their opinions of Marjorie and of her friendship with Bernie. This is also where we meet Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey), the area district attorney who some locals feel is more interested in staying in office that doing any real good. McConaughey is fantastic with his cowboy hat hair, oversized glasses, and funky inner mouth prosthetic. He fits perfectly in this zany cast of characters and he steals most of the scenes he’s in.
There is so much that works with this film. It shocks me to be able to say this but Jack Black is really good here. This is a quirky character that fits right into his limited comfort zone. He sells Bernie wonderfully and he leaves the audience questioning how we should understand and respond to his character. The movie also packs a lot of genuinely funny moments. Even when the story takes a more twisted turn it stills manages to sideswipe you with some unexpected hilarious scenes. But while it certainly didn’t ruin the movie, the later shift in the movie’s tone wasn’t seamless. There were a few moments in the film where it felt like Linklater struggled in mixing his humor with the more serious elements of the story. It’s impossible to go any further into detail without getting into spoiler territory but I did find myself questioning what kind of movie Linklater was making a few times in the third act.
But don’t let that small gripe scare you away from this picture. “Bernie” is one of the bigger surprises of the year. It’s a comedy that’s actual funny. It’s intelligent and creative and it doesn’t use the normal modern comedy gimmicks that are so prevalent today. Linklater does a brilliant job of taking a serious true story and wrapping it up in very unique humor and the results are fantastic. Black is really good, McConaughey is great, and the entire assortment of interviewed locals are guaranteed to make you laugh. I had a blast with “Bernie” and it’s a movie that I simply can’t wait to check out again.