Dark comedies reveal the humor that exists in the more complicated moments in life. Directed by veteran independent filmmaker Richard Linklater, Bernie expertly explores how a beloved citizen can maintain his favorable position in a small town, even though he is a confessed murder.
Respected expert funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) has made a name for himself around Carthage, Texas. His attention to detail with the deceased continues long after the funeral, as he will go so far as to visit widows to reassure them after their loss. After Marjorie Nugent’s (Shirley MacLaine) husband dies and leaves her with his entire estate, Mrs. Nugent becomes known for her Grinch-like behavior and is despised by the entire town. In typical Bernie fashion, he visits Mrs. Nugent multiple times in order to finally get through to her. The two begin to share a lovely companionship, until Bernie feels imprisoned and finds himself making a drastic mistake.
The film sets up the story well with a lovely exposition. Bernie shows how attentive he is in preparing a body for viewing to a small class, and we witness his respectful business sense when selling caskets. The townspeople narrate much of the exposition in a Greek chorus fashion that gives the town variety and color to effectively create a small town atmosphere. Even the local district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) provides narration, but would later leave the chorus as he becomes a central antagonist later in the film.
The contrast between the beloved Bernie and hated Mrs. Nugent is a balance drives the gossip for the little town of Carthage. Much of the gossip regarding Bernie pertains to the rumors of his closeted homosexuality, with clues such as his theatre work, paints worn above the naval, and his decadent style and his moustache. When Bernie and Mrs. Nugent become platonic companions, that is where the relationship becomes a head-scratcher, for the spectator and the citizens of Carthage. The aforementioned exposition has Bernie explaining to his class how the nails of the deceased should match their occupation. By the time Bernie becomes Mrs. Nugent’s primary care-giver, he provides her with the same attention to detail he gives to his deceased clientele, such as giving her detailed pedicures.
The combination of Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine is stellar. Black has an uncanny ability to keep up with his character’s guise which required him to keep a slight effeminate behavior, complete with singing skills that will provoke any Tenacious D fan to spin his new album. MacLaine is no stranger to playing unscrupulous elderly females, but here she channels Mr. Potter and Mrs. Daisy to represent Mrs. Nugent, making it easy to sympathize with the unanimous dislike the townsfolk have for her. Despite his name receiving high billing, Matthew McConaughey completely disappears into his character and could easily be mistaken for Gary Cole.
Director Richard Linklater has done an excellent job turning this quirky real-life story into a charming dark comedy. Based off a Texas Monthly article that described the real-life event, Bernie examines how a figure who is so loved and cherished around town can gain unbridled support despite his crime. Murder trials can shake a small town for years, and was so very well explained in the Paradise Lost documentary triptych. For Bernie seeing a town stand behind an admitted murder and a beloved citizen that had done so much and asked for so little has made for an alluring story that is told well.