Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Veronica Orosco, Mona Lee Fultz, Ira Bounds
Review by Joshua Starnes
In small-town Texas, the local mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she's alive.
"Texas is really five different countries," we are told early on in Richard Linklater's ("Slacker") latest offbeat effort. It's a description Austinite Linklater takes to heart in showcasing sleepy Carthage, Texas, near the Louisiana border. In Linklater's hands, Carthage is the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone, where life is described in the nasal drawl of East Texas observation and where nothing of consequence seems to happen.
Or at least it didn't until kindly Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) went on trial for murdering the town's richest widow (Shirley MacLaine).
Loosely based on Skip Hollandsworth's "Texas Monthly" article about the actual killing of Marjorie Nugent in the mid-90s, in Linklater's hands the tawdriness of real-life murder is out the window in favor of gently dark observations about small town life. Particularly small Texas town life.
For those who haven't read Hollandsworth's article, and presumably don't live in or near East Texas, Bernie Tiede was an assistant funeral director and choir director in Carthage (population approximately 6,000). After presiding over the funeral of one of the richest men in town, Bernie soon became the boon companion of his widow, Marjorie, traveling with her around the world, helping her around her house, driving her and even managing her business affairs, right up until the point she went missing. Nine months later she was discovered dead in the freezer of her house and Tiede was arrested and put on trial for the murder. This was considered unusual. Not the murder but the arrest and trial because a) Bernie Tiede was an extremely popular man who was liked everywhere he went and b) Marjorie Nugent was just plain mean and probably had it coming.
Shot in a mock-documentary style (which is not to be confused with a mocumentary), the star and even the focus of "Bernie" is less Bernie himself and more the way the town views him. And through him, the way they view life in general.
Linklater continually cuts back and forth between Black and interviews with the residents of Carthage, played by actual residents of Carthage, developing them into a conglomerate character of the town. Though its one of the better parts of "Bernie" the overall result is a great deal of wink-and-a-nod ironic detachment from the people themselves, standing back and marveling out their sheer small townness.
It's one of the few sour notes in an extremely gentle comedy considering how dark the subject matter is. All of the more sordid elements of the real story have been gently whitewashed over to make Bernie more inherently likeable and explain town's connection to him in an empathic way.
It helps greatly to have Jack Black in the title; in one of his better performances Black inhabits Bernie with old world charm even when shooting an old woman in the back. In fact Bernie is probably the only thing in "Bernie" devoid irony, quirky though he may be.
It's not one of Linklater's better efforts; his skill for character is obvious but he doesn't seem to know what to do with it. Nor does he, for all his apparent interest, have much to offer about life in small town. Beneath the light touch and charm are a lot of the old tropes about xenophobia and lack of self-awareness.
But, even if he can do better, mediocre Linklater is better than most people are capable of. For whatever faults it has "Bernie" is a charming a time as you'll have at the movies waiting for a mean old lady to be murdered.