Synopsis: In small-town Texas, the local mortician Bernie (Jack Black) strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine), though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she’s alive.
There was a time in the mid 00’s when Jack Black was well astride the A-List train. School of Rock had put him on the map in 2003 as as someone who could carry a movie; Tenacious D had made him a bona fide rock star; Peter Jackson had cast him in his first post LOTR venture. The world was his oyster.
Then I guess, Kung Fu Panda aside, things didn’t go according to plan. The Tenacious D movie was the classic “single gag stretched too far” failure; Gulliver’s Travels tanked; and a succession of bad comedies ensued.
So it was good to see Richard Linklater, who let him loose in School of Rock, get the best Jack Black performance I have seen since School of Rock without him having to throw Devil Horns and scream “BBLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGHHHHHHHHH”.
The first thing to say about Bernie is; unlike most movies recently that open with the “based on true events” bullcrap that means something like this may kind of possibly in some semblance of the following sequence of events happened, the opening statement of “Based on a true story” actually applies and is accurate.
Jack Black plays Bernie. A mild mannered, portly, moustachioed, God loving, selfless man, who ends up being the world’s nicest and most unlikely murderer. A man with the patience of a Saint, driven to murder a local wealthy old woman (Shirley MacLaine) so ball-achingly bitter, she evidently could have made St Peter go postal. All based on the events of the case of the ACTUAL Bernie Tiede in Texas in the late 90’s as covered in the Texas Monthly article from which the screenplay was formed.
Linklater gets a wonderful performance out of Black who plays Bernie the right level of camp and the right level of rosy cheeked, perma smiled creepy. Shirley MacLaine is ok as the battleaxe who drives Bernie over the edge, but she pretty much just had to mumble and scowl. It could have been any older actress in the role. Except Betty White. She is an angel and incapable of scowling.
Matthew McConaughey though continues to impress upon me that he is a genuine, versatile actor with what boils down to a cameo as the Stetson’d, hamster cheeked District Attorney determined to prosecute Bernie in spite of overwhelming public pressure to let him go.
In other hands this would have been played too broadly for laughs, particularly with a clown like Black in the lead role. Linklater though has enough indie savvy to strike the right balance of comedy and heart. He understands this is a sweet story about a sweet man who is driven to do a terrible deed. I was also impressed by the semi-documentary approach whereby the story was narrated through the talking heads of the townsfolk who were part of the original story. It gives the film a personal, genuine, human weight that it may have otherwise have lacked.
Conclusion: A mild mannered, sweet movie about a mild mannered, sweet man. A top 5 career performance for Black, but in the middle of the pack for Linklater. Doesn’t feel like he ever stretched himself, but proves he can direct better than most on auto-pilot.
Director: Richard Linklater – You know, him of the million movies he has done crossing multiple genres. Most famously Dazed & Confused, School of Rock and the Sunset/Sunrise trilogy.
Writer: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth (from his article in Texas Monthly)
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
- Real residents of Carthage, Texas who knew the real Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent appear in the film providing commentary on the events.
- Matthew McConaughey‘s mother, Kay McConaughey, makes a cameo in the film as one of the residents of the town.
- Jack Black met with the real Bernie Tiede in Telford Unit State Prison. Shirley MacLaine also spoke with Tiede over the phone.