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FILM REVIEW: Jack Black is ‘Bernie’

The tit­u­lar role that Jack Black plays in Bernie is decep­tively tricky, although it doesn’t seem so at first. As Bernie Tiede, the extra­or­di­nar­ily kind, unselfish, and car­ing assis­tant funeral direc­tor of the tiny town of Carthage, Texas, Black has to make this strange, rotund lit­tle man not so freakin’ unbe­liev­ably sweet as to that we don’t believe he could pos­si­bly mur­der a rich old lady (Shirley Maclaine) who’s been treat­ing him mean andgo on to fool every­body for nine months.

But, just enough so there’s not a hint that Bernie is an evil, duplic­i­tous fraud who’s twist­ing the gullible com­mu­nity that adores him around his chubby lit­tle pinkie fin­ger. (Though that would be hard, see­ing as dur­ing these nine months he con­tin­ued spend­ing a for­tune doing good for Carthage, and very lit­tle on him­self, which would be great if it were not the for­tune of some­one he killed.)

And Black suc­ceeds, won­der­fully, but not in a way that par­tic­u­larly asserts itself as one of the great per­for­mances of the year. Per­haps it’s because by the end we still don’t really know who Bernie is, apart from being a really nice, some­what schlubby guy who com­mit­ted mur­der just because he unfor­tu­nately reached his boil­ing point. Black doesn’t dig as deep into the psy­che of this man as I would have liked, and the movie doesn’t seem con­cerned in ask­ing for more.

Cer­tainly, Bernie is an odd, off­beat and irrev­er­ent indie offer­ing, hov­er­ing uncer­tainly in black com­edy most of the time, while bor­der­ing satire and also straight-forward drama. It’s a unique con­coc­tion of direc­tor Richard Lin­klater, some­times hilar­i­ous, some­times sad, some­times absurd, some­times stir­ring, some­times amus­ing, and some­times none of the above.

Bring­ing a lit­tle more energy to the table is a scenery-chewing Matthew McConaughey, seem­ingly emu­lat­ing the man­ner­isms and atti­tude of Owen Wil­son in a Wes Ander­son movie (of your choice) as a gonzo local dis­trict attor­ney hell-bent on per­se­cut­ing Bernie.

Also, Lin­klater reg­u­larly inter­cuts through­out his film clips show­ing the hon­est folks of Carthage, uncom­pli­cated in their gen­uinely South­ern ways and united in their belief that Bernie is an angel come down from heaven, telling his tragi­comic story to the audi­ence. Again, the lines are blurred, as you don’t know whether Bernie is pok­ing gen­tle fun at these peo­ple or cel­e­brat­ing them.

The quasi-ambiguous doc­u­men­tary – or mock­u­men­tary, rather – aspect is one that should be expected, if not embraced, because Bernie is based on a true-life story that first appeared in a 1998 Texas Monthly arti­cle writ­ten by Skip Hol­landsworth, who is cred­ited as a co-writer – Bernie really did exist, and really did shoot the wid­owed 81-year-old Mar­jorie Nugent in the back in her home, and really kept using her money on the local Methodist church and the Boy Scouts and schol­ar­ships for the col­lege, and really was even­tu­ally caught.

Such a story deserves its big-screen time, and this movie cer­tainly does it jus­tice. But there always seems to be some­thing miss­ing to give it the mem­o­rable, refresh­ing boost that Bernie, as a first-class “quirky” movie, des­per­ately needs. And although it’s fan­tas­tic, Black’s singing abil­ity, show­cased here with beau­ti­ful choir songs and a rous­ing the­atre per­for­mance, isn’t it. [B]