Employing a laid-back, jovial and amiable mien, Richard Linklater‘s latest effort, the East Texas-set black comedy “Bernie,” is not unlike the Austin-based filmmaker himself: affable, eager to please without pandering, and highly likeable. In fact, “Bernie,” starring Jack Black as an endearing mortician and well-loved member of his small-town community in Carthage, Texas, is so delightful, and rather wryly comical, it’s easy to be charmed with the picture despite its modest ambitions, small-scale aims and slight nature.
Based on a true story, and shot in a faux, docu-drama-like style not unlike the Christopher Guest films (“Best In Show,” “Waiting for Guffman“), “Bernie” centers on Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede (Jack Black in a nice, dialed-in and mannered performance), an effeminate but beloved local mortician with people skills to spare. Empathetic, soothing and understanding, Bernie transforms an average local funeral home into a sanctuary; a warm protective cocoon where families can respectfully grieve and celebrate their loved ones. Not only is Bernie a lauded master mortician whose skills are renowned for making the dead look comely and at peace post mortem (he occasionally teaches classes to budding pupils studying to be funeral directors), but to him, it’s a higher calling and a work of art. A lecture early on about the mortician’s duties transforms into a poetic manifesto and narrative about assisting the dead into their final voyage to the other side, and in doing so, being the implicit captain in comforting the bereaved.
Plus, Bernie’s also the total package: not only charismatic, tender and pleasant, but he sings golden-voiced hymns at funerals, is the ultimate salesman and is a pillar of the community who directs and stars in various stage plays and musicals (Black’s Tenacious D musical expertise makes this part of his performance all the more effortless). So respected and adored are Bernie’s skills that middle-age townsfolk not even really near death make Bernie promise to sing at and direct their funeral.
Possessing a deeply generous demeanor and a strange affinity for elderly widows (which makes the locals suspect he’s “a little light in the loafers”), when affluent doyenne Marjorie Nugent’s (Shirley MacLaine) husband passes on, Bernie stops by after hours to check in on her, bearing gifts and inquiring whether he can do anything more to ease her pain. Known as the least-liked person in Carthage, Texas (her grandchildren attempted to sue her due the penny-pinching approach to her fortune), Bernie doesn’t have an easy time of winning over Marjorie, but eventually, perhaps begrudgingly, she finally relents.
And soon the curmudgeonly lady has her one and only friend. They dine together, vacation together, and Bernie chaperones her around town. A queer relationship to many people in Carthage, but a seemingly harmless one nonetheless. However, the union eventually curdles into a master-and-servant dynamic with Bernie having to attend to Marjorie’s every whim and need. Convinced to be her part-time assistant, the gig eventually devolves into a form of indentured servitude and the once cheery mortician becomes downcast and depressed.
If you’ve read any basic information about this film or seem the trailer, you know where this one heads (minor spoilers ahead). Struggling to meet her increasing demands, Bernie snaps, kills Marjorie and then spends months trying to cover up her murder by pretending she’s had a minor stroke and is unavailable to go out or see guests.
Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) – the local D.A., always out to make a name for himself – soon catches wind of Marjorie’s absence and, abetted by her suspicious accountant Lloyd Hornbuckler (Richard Robichaux), Davidson soon proves Bernie’s crime. It leads to a sensational local trial, but Davidson is quickly faced with a baffling and unexpected challenge: the town of Carthage (never a big fan of the iniquitous Marjorie) rallies to Bernie’s defense, demanding that the authorities go easy on him for killing the elderly Nugent. An initial concern is having the entire story drawn out in the trailers and synopsis — there’s no mystery to this comedic crime drama, but one swiftly realizes this picture is not about the details at all, but instead the comedic, human and idiosyncratic elements that fall within the particular fine points.
Littered with local TV actors who essentially recount the narrative in faux documentary-style interviews – many of whom feel so authentic you’d assume they were plucked off the streets of East Texas – “Bernie” is ultimately a bit of a “Rashomon”-like portrait of small town gossip, quaint notions, and the refracted ideas these townspeople have about Marjorie, Bernie, their relationship, the murders and the people trying to bring him to justice. A mockumentary-like structure might be the most apt description of the film’s construction, and a picture like this could easily backslide into tones of ridicule and condescension, but Linklater has a sharp eye and employs a tone that sends up, but also celebrates the quirks and peculiarities of Bernie and all these eccentric small-town folks.
If there’s one major element lacking in “Bernie,” and perhaps because this effort is essentially a light, congenial comedy, it would be that any true examinations of the psyche and the entire effort feels a bit slender and superficial. Sure, Bernie eventually snaps in a brief moment of wrath that changes his life forever, but Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s script (the latter being the journalist who wrote the article the film is based on) is mostly concerned with just documenting the facts while peppering comedy into this odd and humorous story. Then again, Bernie’s an enigmatic figure, but there’s no denying there isn’t a lot of meat around the bone. In fact, it’s pretty wafer-thin outside of the amusing structure, the engaging tone and the inviting performances, but at a brief 90 minutes, “Bernie” just breezes by. Yet, as slim and inessential as “Bernie” is in the scope of things – it’s really not saying a whole heck of a lot – it is nonetheless arch and witty, a lighthearted and entertaining little trifle that’s pretty damn funny and enjoyable too. [B]