I doubt that I would have ever watched Bernie had it not been for the recommendation of a good friend. I'm just not much of a Jack Black fan, and this film was completely off my radar when it was mentioned to me. Thankfully, I had the good sense to trust my friend's opinion because Bernie is one of the best black comedies that I've seen in many moons.
The film is based on a true story. I have no idea how much of the film is true, but would guess that it is substantially accurate, based on the real pictures of the main characters that are shown during the closing credits. Director Richard Linklater wisely fashioned the story as a faux-documentary. Much of the film's humor comes from the interviews of real-life Carthage, Texas residents who knew Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent and offer their colorful perspectives on the situation.
Here are the movie's facts in a nutshell: Bernie Tiede moves to Carthage, Texas when he accepts a job as an assistant funeral director. He is a model employee and extraordinary citizen of the town. He is active in church and community theater, and the older ladies of the town are particularly enamored with him. He strikes up a friendship with Marjorie Nugent, the wealthiest widow in town and widely believed to be the meanest. Bernie and Marjorie travel together and Bernie is entrusted with Marjorie's investment decisions as well. Eventually, Bernie is designated in Marjorie's will as her sole beneficiary.
Yet Bernie finds life with Marjorie to be stifling, and he shoots and kills her one day. Apparently mortified by what he has done, he hides her in her freezer and invents ruse after ruse to convince people that Marjorie is still alive. Eventually, Marjorie's body is found. District attorney Danny Buck, charismatically played by Matthew McConaughey, vows that justice will be served, but then finds that his jury pool is in question when the town overwhelmingly backs Bernie.
Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie with appropriate tartness, investing the character with vinegar and bile. Jack Black is a revelation as Bernie, however, and delivers a funny, well-rounded performance full of charm and kindness. He also gets to sing gospel numbers, hymns, and a couple of musical comedy selections. He captures every nuance of the character. It's a performance that should have been worthy of Oscar recognition -- Black is that good.
As a film, Bernie moves along at a brisk pace. Linklater's direction is excellent and the editing is a strong aspect of the movie. Perhaps the film seems a little less funny as it winds down, but for most of the ride, the audience will likely be bathed in unexpected pleasure. Grade: A-.
I watched Bernie with my friend Brian via Netflix Streaming on January 29, 2013.