Firstly I’d like to make two points. Labelling this a comedy is a bit of a misrepresentation and a total disservice to Jack Black; though darkly humorous at times and some chuckles (mostly not from him), it’s not the next “Jack Black” comedy. I feel that they were stuck with no idea on how to market this fantastic film to a “wider audience” and fell back on the easy “From the Director of School of Rock” and “Jack Black”. That audience will walk out less than thrilled I feel. Secondly, the synopsis is terrible and does a disservice to the story. Ok...
Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede, an assistance mortician in the small Texan town Carthage, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of an elderly widow, Ms Nugent, played by the always great Shirley MacLaine. The film is directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) and co-written with Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article that caught Linklater’s interest.
The film opens with Bernie as a guest speaker demonstrating to a class the proper way to prepare a body for presentation at a funeral. He is soft spoken, gentle, never morbid and respectful of both the dead and living alike. It’s a wonderful scene and displays his nature beautifully. The film then firmly sets its style using vintage style title cards, intercutting interviews with Carthage locals (and a couple of actors to help steer the narrative – it’s clear who), along with the dramatisation of events. It is paced nicely and never feels like a clunky mechanism to espouse exposition. I saw it described as having a mockumentary style, but more serious... I’m pretty sure there is a word for that already. Regardless, neither of those descriptions is accurate; it’s a docudrama if anything, though sadly that tends to make one think of bad TV movies.
Bernie was a pillar of the community, and the town’s feelings for him are abundantly clear through their interviews. Though script polished, their words and sentiments are theirs as confirmed by locals of the town. He is described as a selfless member of the town engaging and supporting every aspect of it, from people to businesses, the church to the school, theatre to local kids sport teams; he was loved, is loved, and is missed. So what could make such a man put 4 bullets in the back of a little old lady?
[CUT TO: You tracking down the film and watching it. Hmm, it’s turned into a montage... I’ll wait.]
Ok, you’re back. I was right, huh? A great film with great performances and a story that you can’t wait to see where it will take you next.
I really enjoy when an actor steps out of the shadow of what they are known for, particularly comedic actors in a turn for the dramatic, and Jack Black is fantastic here. If that sort of thing is of interest to you, you must check out Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me both Adam Sandler films that floored me, or Awakenings with Robin Williams which devastated. If you want to see Jack Black stretch his chops some more check out Margot at the Wedding.
One thing that Jack Black does well is sing and he is in fine form here getting his Gospel on. Singing is a strong facet of Bernie’s character whether at a memorial or in the theatre, and it draws you to him. Black has maybe 8 or 9 songs he performs in part, all in context, and he is marvellous.
Despite a great performance, I won’t discuss Shirley MacClaine beyond noting the perfect casting.
Late in the piece marks the arrival of Mathew McConaughey as the prosecutor nipping at Bernie’s heels. McConaughey is very good, though he looked like he had cotton wool stuffed in his cheeks; not to a Brando degree, but I found it very distracting. [Update right before posting: Yes he did. Why? “...to add definition”. Personally, I could have done without it]
Bernie is a solid film with fine performances in all quarters. The nephew of Ms Nugent said apart from some insignificant details it is very accurate, which makes it land all the more. Highly recommended.