(This review was originally published on May 14, 2012 at Reel Film News)
“Bernie” is a quirky, oddly charming film. Yes, it’s a story about a murder – a true one at that – but it reminds me of a Christopher Guest film if spun from a Coen Brother’s script, like the “Best in Show” of justifiable homicides. It stars Jack Black in an unexpected career turn as a closeted funeral director who ends up committing murder and is subsequently chased down by a comically straight-laced Texas District Attorney played by Matthew McConaughey. The film also includes more spirited singing from Black than one of his Tenacious D concerts. Who could possibly resist that amalgam?
It must have been heaven for director/co-writer Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”) to tell a story about his home state of Texas – East Texas, that is – specifically Carthage, which is situated a few hundred miles north of Houston (where Linklater grew up). The folks here distinguish themselves from the rest of the Lone Star State with their unique sense of hospitality and community values. This is exemplified by humorous testimonial from the locals regarding the impending scandal in pseudo-improvisational ‘mockumentary’ style (they are interviewed like favorable character witnesses for the soon-to-be defendant). Despite what might be considered a groundbreaking performance by Black as the title character, these secondary characters are what bind the film.
“Bernie” is based on an article by the film’s co-writer Skip Hollandsworth which chronicles the 1996 murder. Jack Black dons a persona like a relic of the ’50s Bible Belt, so wholesome it would make John Denver look like a gang member. Bernie Tiede is a flamboyant, overtly amicable assistant funeral director who rolls into town singing along to religious folk music, and is quickly adored by the whole town. He is genuinely altruistic. The focal point, or at least the intended one, is Bernie’s burgeoning but questionable relationship with a wealthy, unanimously detested town widow played by Shirley MacLaine (in one of her most despicable characters to date). If you’ve seen “Guarding Tess”, you’ll notice a similar dynamic between MacLaine and what becomes her repressed man-servant. In “Bernie”, the outcome goes in a completely different direction.
Carthage, so we’re informed, is known as the ‘squirrel hunting capital of the world’. The film doesn’t get much more sinister than that, considering the subject matter. Linklater has made Crystal Light out of the dark comedy, and I have to admit it’s pretty refreshing. He puts a mild spin on events I imagine were considerably more disturbing in real life and pays more attention to telling the story from its periphery, through the town folk, whose lexicon is riddled with acronyms like DLOL (dear little old ladies). Even if Linklater’s vision falls a little short on substance (at least for a feature-length film), “Bernie” is consistently amusing.