Today’s movie is tough to categorize. Bernie is part documentary, part mocumentary, part dark comedy, part legal drama, part character study, and part community portrait, and it’s all based on a real murder.
Jack Black stars as Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director in the rural East Texas town of Carthage. Despite his potentially gruesome profession, (at which he excels,) Bernie is universally regarded by the townsfolk as one of the nicest, most caring people they have ever met. In addition to his work at the funeral home, Bernie is active in his church, and directs the community theater. He’s also almost certainly gay, but nobody seems to think anything of this. It’s in his capacity as funeral director that he meets millionaire widow Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). If Bernie is the most well-liked person in Carthage, Marge is the least liked, she’s rude, vindictive, and flat-out mean. Despite this, Bernie, incapable of being rude to anyone, still does his best to support her as she mourns her late husband. Eventually the two become close friends, then traveling companions. Marge eventually grants Bernie power-of-attorney and designates him the sole beneficiary of her estate.
That’s normally as much of the story as I’d want to put into one of these reviews. That said, I suppose it is important to also add that after several months go by in which nobody can remember actually seeing Marge in person, it’s discovered that she is, in fact, quite dead and Bernie is charged with her murder by the grandstanding local D.A. Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). His arrest and trial provide the film with a surprisingly powerful final act.
Bernie is really a pretty funny movie. The film cuts between, (apparently real,) interviews with local townspeople and a dramatic narrative, which, in itself is enough to make the film noteworthy. The townspeople interviewed in the film really lend a lot of authenticity and color to the film. Meanwhile Jack Black is absolutely fantastic as Bernie, abandoning his usual persona and really embodying the character to the point that I spent the first few minutes trying to figure out who playing the part. Its really a hell of a performance. The film does a fantastic job of blending humor, and drama, and a fantastic sense of reality.
If I do have one criticism of the film, its that it’s perhaps a little too real. This is a real story about a real murder that happened not all that long ago. This is great for suspension of disbelief, but the knowledge of that reality sort of sat in the back of my mind, and provided just enough unease to stop me from completely enjoying the film. That said, Bernie is absolutely worth seeing.