The story of Bernie Tiede is too good to be true. By all accounts, Tiede was a sweet fellow, generous to a fault, professional, a perfectionist, and had the voice of an angel to boot. So it was a surprise to the folks of Carthage, Texas when Tiede was arrested for the murder of Marjorie Nugent, an 80-year-old millionaire who spent most of her time with Tiede. Or was it? The same townsfolk who believed Bernie to be a saint knew Marjorie as a bitter old woman who hated everyone around her and was even estranged from her own family, who tried one to sue her for her money.
Bernie, directed by Richard Linklater and co-written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, adapts Hollandsworth's January 1998 article about Tiede for the big screen. Starring Linklater's School of Rock companion Jack Black in the title role, it's a curious little movie that has clear ideas about Tiede and the quiet, unassuming community he lived in, and less of an idea of the story it wants to tell about Tiede.
Black's performance is one of his best, relying on the actor's softer side to paint a picture of a funeral home director who befriends every widow he ends up working for out of pure kindness, sings the verses nobody remembers in the church hymns, and would not let the cold attitude of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) deter him from bringing baskets of body washes and fine chocolates. Used to perfect effect in films like High Fidelity (and the aforementioned School of Rock), Black ended up pigeonholed for a long time, trapped giving exhausting performances in blockbuster comedies that wanted a persona more than a person. Here, he avoids almost all of his usual tricks (except singing, which he does magnificently), nailing the warmth of a role that could easily become caricature. In comparison, MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey (as District Attorney Danny Buck) are both hilarious but far less successful at humanizing or dimensionalizing cartoon villainy like Marjorie's obnoxious chewing and Buck's goofy courtroom speeches.
At the same time, Bernie is a remarkably successful human story thanks to the citizens of Carthage. Most of the movie is comprised not of expository scenes with Black and MacLaine, but the townsfolk -- some of whom are authentic Carthage residents that knew the real Tiede -- are a wonderful bunch, who fill us in on the little things, like the divisions inside the state of Texas, their opinions of Bernie's sexuality, and their opinion of Marjorie and her family. When Bernie's trial is taking place, one of the jury members shows up to the Texas trial of the century with a Double Big Gulp. Those who show up to the film expecting to see Black doing his usual schtick will probably get antsy in a hurry, but there's a hint of Fargo in the way Linklater spotlights the residents.
As a film, Bernie is a bit slight. It's a film that is less about conflict and telling a story than it is about observation. At the same time, Linklater effectively creates a connection between the audience and Bernie, as if it doesn't really matter what Bernie did or why, just that the viewer ought to meet him. The film opens with a couple of title cards informing the viewer: "You're fixin' to see a true story." Really, that sums it up nicely.
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