Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in "Bernie"
From the "News of the Weird" file comes the new comedy "Bernie," a Texan tale of murder that opens with the promise "What You're Fixin' to See Is a True Story."
The unlikely leading man is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a roly-poly funeral director who explains his craft in the film's opening scene. "You cannot have grief tragically become a comedy," he warns of corpse cosmetology, but it's a winking reference to the line "Bernie" cheerily crosses. For Bernie will soon enough murder octogenarian Marjorie Nugent (a drily amusing Shirley MacLaine), and the laughs don't die with her.
In what Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater calls his "East Texas 'Fargo,'" the God-fearing folk of small-town Carthage keep their distance from the "hard-down mean" millionaire Marjorie. Meanwhile, they love Bernie to death -- and beyond. Bernie proves to be a savvy businessman, drumming up business by adding crosses to the funeral parlor, and winning friends and influencing people by singing all over town with the voice of an angel. (Black's renditions of hymns like "Love Lifted Me" are unqualified highlights.)
Everything changes when Bernie meets Marjorie at her husband's funeral. Gestures of guileless kindness break through the old widow's tough hide, and after a spell, the two become inseparable. The truth about what follows remains a matter of opinion, a theme expounded upon by Linklater and co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth (working from the latter's Texas Monthly article "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas").
A chorus of East Carthaginians -- some actors, but many actual town residents -- tells much of the story, with commentary collected under titles like "Was It Romantic?", "Was Bernie Gay?" and "Guilty or Innocent?" The latter, of course, refers to Bernie's crime of passion, which he never bothers to deny. On the other hand, before confessing to the crime, Bernie lets Marjorie's corpse stay on ice in a freezer for nine months, a period he spends spending Marjorie's fortune.
The real Bernie is gay, though the film plays coy on the matter, the better to dramatize people's willingness to look the other way. In part because they just liked the guy, and in part because of all the money he spread around town in acts of beneficence, many people refuse to say a bad word about the confessed murderer of an old woman. One notable exception: district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), who, in frustration, must petition to get the trial moved two counties south to the "Squirrel Hunting Capital of the World."
While it would be easy to brand "Bernie" mean-spirited and tasteless, Linklater and Hollandsworth stick closely to the facts, keeping the bizarre story all the more compelling. And it is funny, in the manner of the fictionalized "To Die For" and the fictional "Fargo."
Black carefully calibrates his performance to be all kinds of enjoyable, which is precisely the unsettling point of the film: How can we like a murderer so darn much? And what do we do with the terrible irony that, apparently, not a living soul missed Marjorie Nugent when she was gone, with the possible exception of the fella who killed her?
Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language. 1 hour, 44 minutes.
- Peter Canavese