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]