In Bernie, Jack Black reels in his slapstick, hip persona to portray Bernie Tiede, the mild, effeminate assistant undertaker in the town of Carthage, Texas. Everyone loves Bernie, who leads the congregation in song as the choir soloist, who lavishes the community with charitable works, and who makes their deceased loved ones look their best–despite being dead. He’s the best community leader and mortician any town could ask for.
Bernie is based on a true crime story that sent a ripple through the upscale Texas community in 1997. In his unwavering role as compassionate consoler (just part of the job for a sympathetic undertaker), Bernie showers attention on the newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), former wife of the wealthiest man in town. Marjorie assumes her husband’s business role as head of the local bank and alienates the locals by cavalierly dismissing their loan applications. She is hands-down the most reviled person in Carthage.
Soon Marjorie and Bernie are seen side-by-side attending artsy theatre presentations, and romping through luxurious vacation destinations, thanks to her generosity in picking up the tab. They are constant companions. What started out as a simple need to console and to be consoled, morphs into a smothering relationship. Marjorie rules Bernie with an iron fist in a velvet glove. As the web tightens around Bernie, she bends him to her will, forcing an increasingly unhappy Bernie to cater to her every whim. She even goes so far as to cement the relationship by making him her sole beneficiary, and her financial advisor. Is it any surprise then that this rotund, good-natured man-child feels obligated to put a couple of slugs in his benefactor and hide her in the deep freeze? I don’t think so.
It’s hard to imagine a comedic true crime film, based on actual events, but director Richard Linklater has accomplished just that. This is only possible because Bernie, in spite of being the villain of the piece, is such a likeable fellow. Linklater apes the TV Investigation Discovery format by interspersing snippets of actual Carthage residents who knew the real Bernie Tiede. “He always made us look good.” In spite of the fact that this simple man has just confessed to slaughtering the golden goose, the town folk stand behind him. Knowing that the locals will never find Bernie guilty, wisecracking prosecuting attorney Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) pleads for a change of venue to a town 50 miles away from Carthage, Texas, and the townspeople who support Bernie in spite of his evil deed.
Black is superb in this understated role. Bernie is the soul of goodness pitted against the despicable nature of the town villainess. As an interesting aside, both Black and MacLaine spoke with Tiede via phone calls to his prison cell before making the movie. Watch for a cameo appearance of the real Bernie in the closing credits. Rotten Tomatoes rates Bernie 92% Fresh.