Bernie is a friendly little film about friendship, truth, and murder, and what’s more, it has the feel of something new: I’ve been playing around with the term “documockumentary.” The restlessly creative director, Richard Linklater, wrote the movie with Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article in Texas Monthly upon which this fictionalized true-life account was based. The story is a whopper; its telling is even better.
In small-town Texas, (Carthage to be exact), Miss Marjorie Nugent, an elderly, church-going woman whose departed husband left behind a sizable wealth, was murdered by the town’s assistant mortician, Bernie Tiede. Marjorie wasn’t a beloved figure in town but she and Bernie were best of friends, to the point where she rewrote her will to leave her money to him. After killing Marjorie, Bernie hid the body and carried on for nine whole months as if it hadn’t happened. Once he was finally caught, Bernie immediately confessed to the crime, yet there are plenty in Carthage who still refuse to believe that he did it. Marjorie may not have been beloved, but Bernie was, and it’s an old story that perception counts for plenty in the court of public opinion.
It’s a pleasing irony that Bernie the movie feels so much like a documentary, considering that Bernie and Marjorie are played by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, two of the most outsized film actors on the planet. Jack Black is known as a pop-comic barely equalled in modern comedy for his energy and anarchic enthusiasm, whereas Shirley MacLaine has, over the course of a film career that has seen her go charisma for charisma against massive stars the likes of Clint Eastwood, Dolly Parton, Jack Nicholson, and Frank Sinatra, built up an on-screen and off-screen persona as a formidable battle-axe of a lady. For what Linklater is up to with Bernie, he couldn’t have cast it any more perfectly. Is it possible that Bernie was quite as boundlessly spry as Jack Black is? Is it possible that Marjorie was nearly as intimidating as Shirley MacLaine is? Maybe so and maybe not, but that’s definitely the way their friends and neighbors seemed to perceive them.
What makes the movie feel so fresh and so enjoyable is that Linklater, in a narrative masterstroke, has stocked the movie with a mixture of local Texas-area actors and actual Carthage townspeople, many of whom actually knew Bernie and Marjorie. The movie is structured like a documentary, where the peripheral characters are interviewed about their experiences with Bernie and Marjorie and their knowledge and opinions of the crime, while the actors “recreate” the dramatic scenes in between.
This gives the movie an uncommon sense of local atmosphere and believability (the older fella who describes Texas geography is worth admission all by his own self), but also a hugely comical friction, considering that we’re watching real people interact with real-deal Hollywood movie stars. While Shirley MacLaine either doesn’t, can’t, or chooses not to disappear fully into character (which isn’t a huge deal since, let’s be honest, she ain’t in the movie for as long), Jack Black gives one of his very greatest performances as the sprightly Bernie Tiede.
Jack Black is a guy who it’s somehow become easy to take for granted. He started out doing brief roles in baroque movies like Mars Attacks! and Demolition Man, started gaining steam in the alt-comedy scene with Mr. Show and Tenacious D, and then broke huge with his revelatory supporting role in High Fidelity and with his over-charged lead role in Linklater’s own School Of Rock. Like any major comedy star, he’s ended up in as many bad movies as good ones, which has seemed to put him in the Robin Williams category in too many minds. I hope that enough people see Bernie to be reminded of what a phenomenal talent Jack Black is.
For one thing, he’s really playing a character here, not doing a riff on what has come to be recognizable as the hyperactive “Jack Black” persona. He’s actually using that expectation against you, as he plays a very different person so very well. It helps that Bernie isn’t exactly a low-energy role — Jack gets to channel that contagious energy into another direction. There is a key scene where Bernie plays the lead in a community-theater version of The Music Man where Black gets to unleash the full force of his remarkable performing ability, and it’s actually one of the best musical moments we’re likely to see on screen all year. But it’s not Tenacious D and it’s not Kung Fu Panda. It’s something very unlike any role Black has played before, which makes it all the more rewarding.
If you, as many people, see Jack as “the indie-rock Belushi”, it’s another layer of humor to see him play a guy who sings along with gospel music in the car, sings like an angel at church, acts with the most proper Southernly table manners, and, if he isn’t gay, sure doesn’t take much interest in the ladies other than in the most sisterly way. That last point is one of the most fascinating parts of the story — Linklater and Black play Bernie’s sexuality as kind of an artful dodge. By all reasonable appearances, Bernie is a gay man, but while the question is raised, it never seems to ultimately matter that much. It’s especially rewarding to see how the very Southern town of Carthage loves and embraces Bernie despite every sign of him being outwardly homosexual besides the -sexual. As Northerners, we probably don’t expect that kind of tolerance. And maybe there isn’t even that much tolerance — maybe people just loved Bernie THAT much.
This is where the third central performance of the movie comes in. Matthew McConaughey plays Danny Buck Davidson, Carthage’s District Attorney (another real person), who is determined to prosecute Bernie for the murder of an old widow despite the overwhelming pro-Bernie sentiment in town. McConaughey, who made such a strong comedic impression all the way back in Linklater’s Dazed And Confused and always seems to be at his best as an eccentric character actor rather than a straight-ahead leading man, not only seems at home in the world in this movie but also does something somewhat extraordinary when he’s the odd man out: He’s both the movie’s straight man and a satirical figure at the same time. McConaughey’s reactions as the townsfolk harangue him to let that poor Bernie go are hysterical, but so too are his brag-heavy pronouncements to every camera in a five-mile radius. Danny Buck comes off as the voice of reason (sure Bernie is a nice guy, but he also did kill somebody) and as totally silly at the same time. It’s just another aspect of the warm, inclusive anima of the movie, which has fun with its characters even while recognizing that everyone is a human being with thoughts and feelings and all are worth hearing out, whether they’re on the right track or otherwise.
I have so much affection for this movie. It’s modest, in that it’s not filled with space robots, farting cartoons, or punching people in latex suits, but narratively speaking it’s a high-wire act that I think is pulled off with wit and charm. Again, it’s one of Jack Black’s best performances, and it’s one of Richard Linklater’s most successful and accessible experiments. Most incredibly, unlike so many movies, there isn’t a single dull moment in Bernie. It’s thoroughly entertaining and engaging, and if I see many more movies I enjoyed as much this year, I’ll be feeling pretty good about life.
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