Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is an assistant funeral director in small town Carthage, Texas. He is loved by the community and gets along particularly well with the elderly widows he seeks out to console after going the extra mile with their late husbands’ services. Bernie is an overly nice do-gooder who gets along with everybody and will do everything he can to help out, including organising and contributing to rehearsals and performances for the local amateur dramatics group. Then along comes Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), a recently widowed bitter but wealthy old lady who is being sued by her own family. Bernie tries to work his magic but to no avail, however, he perseveres and eventually Marjorie lets Bernie into her life, perhaps a little too much and both suffer the consequences.
Firstly, I am not a big fan of Jack Black but he was perfectly cast as Bernie and I have new found respect for both Black and Richard Linklater who directed the film. The opening scene is brilliant with Bernie demonstrating how to “cosmetise” a corpse ready for the funeral to a small group of fascinated students. This scene establishes the dark humour that resonates throughout the film and also demonstrates Black’s ability as an intelligent comedic actor. His appearance is perfect from his neat black moustache to his overly rounded belly and Black perfects Bernie’s walk and mannerisms which add some nice physical humour to the film. Shirley MacLaine is on top form as the mean-spirited Majorie, her face showing a multitude of expressions in both a humorous and rather moving manner.
Bernie is in fact based on a true story and the film is a mockumentary employing the use of professional actors and also apparently real Carthagians to tell Bernie’s story in a talking heads style. The characters talk about Bernie in the past tense giving away the fact that something occurs which means Bernie isn’t living in Carthage anymore. This technique develops the level of intrigue around the story and if you do not already know what happens then it will be a shocking and enjoyable surprise. The script is well written with some of the eccentric talking heads having hilarious opinions and anecdotes. There are a few stylistic treats such as the use of a hand drawn map on the screen to illustrate the storytelling of one of the talking heads as he gives his opinion about each Texas region.
Linklater, who was born in Texas, is the master of depicting small town America in an amusing and heart -warming way and Bernie shows the director is back on form, harking back to his earlier work Slacker (1991). Matthew McConaughey is brilliantly cast as the almost unrecognisable District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson who is convinced Bernie is not as innocent as he seems and his Southern drawl is used to great effect. Bernie is full of great comedy timing and is a funny and charming film.
Due to the numerous narrators it is ambiguous as to the actual events of the story and the film becomes a fun commentary on hearsay and small town gossip. The characters are full of delightful idiosyncrasies but it is Black as the anti-hero, MacLaine and McConaughey’s performances that really make the film. This is a light hearted and fun film that is reminiscent of the fairly recent I Love You Philip Morris (2009) and is full of deadpan humour that will leave you wanting more.
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine
Runtime: 104 mins