Most of us have something of a bullshit detector when it comes to judging people. If they seem too good to be true, they probably are. “Bernie” is a film that always teeters on the edge of self-parody and cynicism, but it carefully tries to prove in its 98 minutes that its title character is as good and noble as he seems.
It tells the true story of a mortician (sorry, Funeral Director. Sorry again, Assistant Funeral Director) in Carthage, Texas who is one of the most loved people in town. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) makes his work into an art, revealing his care, eloquence and theatrics in an opening scene where Bernie demonstrates to a classroom the procedure to preparing a body for casketing. Director Richard Linklater gets documentary style testimonials from Carthage townspeople, some character actors and some people who really knew Bernie, but you wouldn’t know the difference, to say just how wonderful he was.
“He had the ability to make the world feel good,” says one local. These people are essential to the portrayal of Bernie. One guy explains the difference between the regions of Texas, how you have the Dallas snobs, Austin liberals, San Antonio Tex Mex, West Texas hicks and finally the good hearted simple folk of the small town of Carthage. “In a small town, we always expect the worst, but also expect the best,” says another.
And Bernie was the best of them. The way they talk about him is so optimistically glossy, so disarming and so near ridiculous in Bernie’s humanitarian capabilities, including showing his love for the DLOL’s (Dear Little Old Ladies) and singing in church. For a while you think you’re watching a Christopher Guest movie about simpletons in the Deep South, and Linklater intentionally keeps you guessing.
Because before long, Bernie starts a relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a bitter, wealthy widow who is hated in town and eventually makes Bernie her servant. “She’d rip you a brand new, three bed, two bath asshole,” says one townsperson, a line so good that if it didn’t actually come from a real townsperson you wish it was.
She proves so controlling of Bernie that he suffers an out-of-body moment and shoots and kills Marjorie with an air rifle. He takes her money and begins donating around the community, and no one seems to notice she’s gone because she’s so disliked. Eventually Bernie is caught, and a District Attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), begins to raise all of our old questions about Bernie as soon as we start to see him as a loveable saint.
Is he gay? Is he evil? Is he putting on an act? Is he a serial killer? Is he driven crazy by his religion? Why doesn’t he have any greed, vices or flaws? Why would he hang out with Marjorie otherwise? Why does he dress and act the way he does, with a lilting voice, colorful polo shirts and a tidy haircut beneath a silly hat?
The beauty of Jack Black’s performance here is that he is disarming, innocent and likeable, and yet he’s never a caricature. This is a character ripe for satire, and the movie is always on that fine line, but Black delivers a very sincere performance.
Similarly, McConaughey has a field day with his role. His haircut and glasses belong to another decade, and here he’s even showing a touch of gray. He’s sincere in not mocking or judging Bernie either, but he makes clear he has his suspicions and his own morals to uphold. What’s one of the tipoffs in assuming Bernie’s sexuality? “And the kicker is, he always wore sandals.”
Linklater has told a really special story here by making it about character, not story at all. His blend of docu-realism and theatrical vitality in a few surprise song and dance numbers keeps us in tow, always wondering what we’re missing about Bernie but ultimately content in showing that this guy is as good as can be.
3 ½ stars