by A.J. Hakari
The words “based on a true story” are like white noise to me. I see them on a poster or DVD cover and automatically tune out, assured that those actual events have had the hell dramatized out of them. Richard Linklater’s Bernie alters some details of the original incident from which it draws inspiration, but a little research shows that the real thing actually was as crazy as what ended up on film. It’s a situation that begs for the big screen treatment, and under Linklater’s direction, Bernie sidesteps all temptations to condescend and brings one tragically amusing story to life.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is the type of guy who could get Ann Coulter to vote Obama. He’s an unbelievably nice guy, an assistant funeral director who volunteers at church, is very generous with his money, and treats everyone he meets with the utmost respect. This particularly extends to the little old ladies in his small Texas town, whom Bernie is happy to console when their loved ones pass. It’s also how he first met Margy Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a crone among crones with whom Bernie strikes up an unusual kinship. But as Margy grows more demanding and possessive of Bernie over the years, the more he tires of living under her thumb, to the point that the townspeople are less shocked that he eventually shoots her and stuffs her in a freezer than they are that he didn’t do it sooner.
I’m kind of amazed that Bernie didn’t end up a bigger circus than it could’ve been. With the believe-it-or-not hook in place, I can imagine a lesser director having a field day, playing Bernie, Margy, and the gossiping townsfolk for stereotype-driven laughs. But Linklater’s career has been dedicated to rubbing shoulders with those who lurk off the beaten path, and Bernie shows it; I didn’t care much for his collage of philosophical burnouts Slacker, but at least he was interested in what they had to say. Bernie‘s strength comes from its understanding, from how you see not just where Bernie comes from (showing that even the most enormously good-hearted have their limits) but the “villain” as well. Matthew McConaughey plays a showboating district attorney, and you even get his frustration at seeing so much emotional support for a confessed killer.
Bernie isn’t a comedy in the sense that it’s packed with one-liners and gags aplenty. Its humor comes from all the characters trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the nicest guy any of them have ever known shot the town bitch in the back. Even Bernie is surprised at his act and presses on with his social engagements undeterred, going directly from the crime scene to rehearsing for “The Music Man.” It’s an odd tone that the actors nail, although not without a few niggling imperfections. Black captures Bernie’s sweetness and nicely performs the sort of role you’re definitely not used to seeing him in, but his “acting” often sticks out and doesn’t come across all that naturally at times. MacLaine is all piss and vinegar as Margy, though the script misses an opportunity to give the character dimension and her demise a more profound edge by showing more of her warming up to Bernie. On the other hand, McConaughey is having a complete blast, doing great work as a smooth-talking, grandstanding attorney whose love for the spotlight kicks into overdrive when he hears of the Bernie affair.
Despite Bernie altering and straight-up leaving out certain details of the actual case, you get a good idea of how wild the whole thing was for real. Woven throughout the film are interviews with those who knew Bernie, and you can tell the guy is as fresh and divisive a topic now as when he shot Margy down in the ’90s. But just as Bernie the man was a source of unexpected kindness and generosity, Bernie the flick is a wellspring of weirdness that touches you in ways you might not anticipate.