The last person the residents of small town Carthage, Texas would expect to be tried with murder would be Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). He was an assistant funeral director, a “born natural” we’re told at comforting others, but he was really the everyman glue of the town. He lead the choir at church functions, loaned his time and money to those in need, directed the town’s fledgling drama productions, coached the Little League team, and went out of his way to spend time with the town’s lonely little old ladies. It was a shock then, in 1996, to find out that Bernie had shot one of those little old ladies, Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), the meanest one of them all, and stuffed her body in a freezer and kept it all a secret for nine months. During that time, Bernie used Marjorie’s considerable fortunes to help every community project he could. Despite the macabre nature of the crime (she had to thaw out for two days before an autopsy could be performed), the residents of Carthage rallied around their boy, Bernie. District attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) had to move the trial to a different venue, not because the accused couldn’t get a fair trial, but because everyone in town wanted Bernie free.
Bernie is Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) returning back to his local color roots. The man is excellent at taking the natural peculiarities of regionalism and credibly establishing a slightly skewed yet authentic portrayal of small town Middle America that feels like it was lifted straight from the pages of Mark Twain. Aiding Linklater is the fact that the movie is composed like a true crime special replete with on camera interviews from many of the real townsfolk of Carthage who knew the real Bernie and Marjorie (what a strange experience it must have been acting with the fictional counterparts). They are all amusing, unassuming characters in their own right, many natural scene-stealers, and they’re still fiercely protective of Bernie 15 years after the events of the movie. The town’s unswayable loyalty and adulation for Bernie pretty much becomes the film’s own point of view. Despite confessing to murder, we find ourselves liking the guy. It’s hard not to love the guy when we see him lift the spirits of the bereaved, volunteer around town, and bring so much pride and joy to the citizens of Carthage. When forces are circling around him, we want him to escape. We want him to keep the illusion of Marjorie being alive just a little bit longer, especially when, in death, she is helping so many more people. Even when we reconcile the facts our gut still wants him to get slapped on the wrist for what is, after all, a capital crime. It’s a fascinating emotional journey for the audience in that regard, to ignore the reality of the offense because of how genuinely nice Bernie is, except for that time he killed an old lady and stuffed her in the freezer.
Black (Tropic Thunder) does something completely different from his usually manic routine. By God, the man inhabits this character. The part plays to his strengths as a performer, his energy and natural likeability, but allows him to mellow out and try a very different tact. For the first time in perhaps his acting career, he’s not playing some variation of Jack Black. He’s playing a real-life person, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the actor is indebted to completely mimicking the living inspiration. Told from the perspective of fawning townsfolk, and one completely mystified prosecutor, Bernie remains something of a mystery as a character. He’s deeply repressed, probably closeted as well, and it’s that distance that keeps us from better understanding him. For all intents and purposes, the people of Carthage loved Bernie, but did any of them really know him? He was a genial presence, charitable and kind, but could anyone really say they truly knew him? Who is the real Bernie, the guy who would break his back helping his neighbors out of the good of his heart, or the guy who shot a little old lady four times in the back? Black doesn’t overplay the fey mannerisms or go to camp levels; he hides behind his friendly veneer and hints at more at work. Bernie’s canny salesmanship with funerals, as well as his lavish spending when he got in control of Marjorie’s finances, give a glimpse at a darker side of Bernie. It’s subtle work for a role that tempts him to go larger. I have no reservations when I say that Black’s controlled yet charismatic performance is worthy of Oscar attention. He’s that good, folks.
Supporting Black are two other great performances from established stars. MacLaine (Valentine’s Day) hasn’t had a role this good since the underrated In Her Shoes. She has great fun as the old sourpuss in town, but she too shows us glimpses of the real Marjorie, the one behind the wall of negativity. There’s a scene where she’s watching Bernie’s musical practice and she can’t help herself but smile. The very act has to break through the scowl that she has so permanently etched into her face, but break through it does triumphantly. MacLaine could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of the grouchy rich old lady, but she’s better than that. You don’t exactly sympathize with her but you do feel Marjorie’s budding comfort, even if it’s slathered in her usual contempt, and you feel her desperation at clinging to the one person who has shown her any personal interest. Likewise, McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer) could have been the one-note daffy lawman, and he’s certainly presented as such early on with his attention-seeking theatrics. We don’t really like Danny Buck, but from an objective standpoint he is the voice of reason. He counters the easily forgiving townsfolk, “If he killed you and stuffed you in a freezer, would you not want him to go to jail?” We know he’s right. And yet, strangely, we don’t seem to mind that much. It’s nice to see McConaughey flourish in a role that shows you he can be a real fine actor instead of just a real fine shirtless torso.
Linklater balances a lot of different tones here but manages to find a satisfying middle ground. Bernie is a chuckler, a movie that will continuously make you laugh but leave your sides safe from splitting. I chuckled and guffawed my way through from beginning to end with great amusement. The comedy is dark but not unrepentantly (hence the PG-13 rating) or mean-spirited. Linklater doesn’t make light that a real woman was murdered, but his film raises a cracked mirror at the absurdities of our culture and the power of charisma/celebrity. There’s a mordant amusement to the entire movie, and you know you shouldn’t be laughing but you cannot help the urge. The constant interviews with the actual Carthage townsfolk add a nice color commentary to the proceedings, filling in the edges of the blanks left over by the screenplay. Some may feel that the constant commentary undercuts the movie, interrupts its flow and turns the movie into one of those grisly TV true-crime specials gussied up for the big screen. The movie does follow a similar trajectory but Linklater balances the small-town satire, tragedy, courtroom drama, and general morbid curiosity into one persuasive, cohesive whole.
Bernie is one of those stories that are so bizarre that it could only come from real life. Buoyed by strong comedic performances, a mordantly compelling story, and some rich supporting turns from real-life witnesses, Bernie is an amusing breath of fresh air amidst the summer movie-going extravaganza. It’s gentler than I would have anticipated, and funnier, and Black’s wonderful performance is worthy of serious awards attention, though I know it will be long forgotten come the fall. I don’t think Linklater was trying to make some kind of larger statement about the powerful allure of charisma, or our malleable sense of what constitutes right and wrong, but Bernie the movie is all about the fronts people put out there and the human willingness to be deceived. Or it’s just a really fun, country-fried slice-of-life comedy. Why not both? Bernie is worth discovering.
Nate’s Grade: B+