Bernie has a trifecta of actors that I usually can’t stand (Jack Black, Mathew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine) and a director who has never impressed me (Richard Linklater). To be honest, Linklater has perturbed me in a way no other director has with his fingernails-on-a-blackboard, over-wordy agendas and use of mostly bad acting to deliver the goods. All this has changed, at least for the most part, with Bernie.The film is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Black). Bernie is an assistant funeral director (“they don’t call them morticians anymore”) in Carthage Texas, a singer for the church choir, an actor in the town’s community theater and an all-around nice guy seeking acceptance. Without giving too much away, Bernie befriends the town’s meanest widow, Mrs. Nugent (MacLaine), who’s rolling in dough.
They start taking trips and spending a significant amount of time together, sparking the small town’s gossip machine. Most everyone thinks that’s just fine, except the widow’s accountant (Richard Robichaux) and District Attorney Danny Buck (McConaughey). As Mrs. Nugent becomes more demanding of Bernie’s attentions, we get the feeling that something is not going to turn out well. Suffice to say that the film takes on a criminal mystery feel for that last third.
This is Linklater’s tribute to his home state, fusing documentary interviews with real people (happy to talk to the camera) and (re-en) actors. Bernie looks a lot like the Errol Morris documentary Vernon Florida, but with a plot. Witty and to the point, Linklater finally restrained, redeems himself by sticking to the story with only small doses of wordy prose-like dialogue.
MacLaine exhibits her finely honed cantankerous spirit with her standard frowning “ bitch-from-hell” role. In doing so, she actually creates a little bit of an arc for Mrs. Nugent before retreating back to devil woman status. Sporting a funny haircut, McConaughey actually made me laugh. Black does a fairly mesmerizing job, but there was way too much of him singing. Plus, Black has gotten so fat that it’s downright creepy to see his tubby girth paired with MacLaine’s withered freckled flesh—yeesh!
Linklater pulls off a slick flick incorporating a great worldview of Texas that, while entertaining, lacks a certain spark. Thanks to the director’s laid-back approach, there’s an absence of high drama and suspense. This leaves us with nothing but warm hearted sentimentality and a prime example of how sometimes less is not more—it’s just less.
2 1/2 Stars
Starring Jack Black, Mathew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine, Richard Robichaux,
Sonny Davis, Rick Dial
Directed by Richard Linklater