This indie film defies easy categorization because it is sometimes comedic, often sad particularly with regard to the old and lonely, and always quirky.
Based loosely on a true story, which took place in a Texas hamlet called Carthage, the small-community culture is faithfully and mercilessly presented. The writer-director, Richard Linklater (of “Dazed and Confused” fame) zeroes in on ordinary lives in Carthage, particularly of the old. Filmed in a quasi-documentary style of “interviews” with actors and local Texans, about the almost-too-good-to-be-true Bernie Tiede, “Bernie” does lose its way in a slow-paced narrative. However, the odd combination of folksy small-town America with its constant gossip and acrid humor contributes to the story’s attraction. The script’s homespun, down-home dialogue is biting, sarcastic, and ruthless which makes the gossip even more authentic and juicy. The genial faces are not those we see in Hollywood films.
The movie opens with Bernie as a fastidious mortician, lecturing on the intricacies of preparing the body for burial (reminding me of scenes from the phenomenal Japanese movie, “Departures” (Academy award-winner for 2010 best foreign film–see my February 15, 2011 review). Bernie has to find acceptance from this community, and he does.
Marjorie Nugent (the delightful Shirley MacLaine) plays the wealthy old bitch who sheds no tears at her husband’s death. Family members have sued her. She communicates only with her stockbroker. Then Bernie moves to town. Her character is pivotal to understanding Bernie and both actors play off each other brilliantly. Jack Black nails every scene he is in, losing his usual goofy man-child demeanor for that of a caring but essentially repressed man, indispensable to the town’s mortuary and to the church choir. (Jack Black’s considerable singing ability is showcased here.) Yet Bernie is slightly “off” but the viewer doesn’t quite know why. There is no backstory for Bernie before he moves to Carthage.
Slowly and reluctantly Majorie Nugent opens herself to a life of affection and enjoyment due to Bernie’s gentle ways, but soon reverts back to her viperous dismissiveness and narcissism, almost in spite of herself. A crime is committed and there is a trial. Sleazy district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey: see my April 5, 2011 review of “Lincoln Lawyer”) struts in his Stetson and cowboy boots, grandstanding in the courtroom for a justice the community of Carthage could care less about. The script, which Linklater wrote with Skip Hollandsworth, is masterful in presenting this ambivalence and confusion.
Bernie is vibrant, a showman, flamboyant and loved. It would be so easy for Jack Black to overact. He doesn’t, instead giving a soulful and restrained performance as someone who needs to be kind to everyone he meets. There is a sense of affection and respect for the people of Carthage in every facial expression and gesture and Black never stoops to caricature. The outtakes show the actor talking with the real Bernie Tiede. For Jack Black’s performance this movie is worth seeing!