Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Since the early ‘90s, the Coen brothers have had something of a monopoly on Hollywood dark comedies (which is something of an oxymoron in that for the majority of mainstream American films, the idea of mixing blackness and comedy is about as alien as ET). On the face of it, this Coen cartel doesn’t look particularly threatened by Bernie, at first glance a light-hearted affair about an assistant funeral director.
In the small East Texas town of Carthage, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is just about the most popular guy around, thanks to his cheery demeanour, relentless selflessness and his tireless dedication to the recently bereaved, particularly if they happen to be ‘dear little old ladies’ (‘DLOLs’). One somewhat less dear lady, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) lets Bernie past her frosty, alienating exterior and he becomes her sole companion. As Marjorie becomes more controlling, Bernie is forced into drastic action.
Said drastic action, as anyone who has seen the poster or read the brief on IMDb will know, is Marjorie’s murder and Bernie’s subsequent elaborate cover up. When considering the bare facts by themselves, as the out of town jury had to (the trial was moved from Carthage when it became apparent that no local jury would convict Tiede), it’s easy to build up an image of a calculating psychopath, particularly when you factor in the copious amounts of Nugent’s money that Tiede was spending.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. Black has made his name playing largely boisterous, sometimes irritating, but generally friendly, harmless characters. Here, he goes even further from the traits associated with murderers, making Bernie so sickeningly sweet that it’s a huge testament to the quality of the performance that he isn’t the single most irritating character ever committed to screen. MacLaine’s Marjorie is the perfect foil for the noble Bernie, particularly after their relationship turns sour. The real stars, however, are the various townspeople (some actors, some the real people), who appear as talking heads throughout, speaking after the fact, and providing an idiosyncratic and frequently hilarious look at small town life.
There are plenty of moments where Bernie could lose its way, particularly as it flies off on tangents to suit the various Carthage residents’ testimonies. However, with the steady hand of Linklater guiding it, it proves to be something of a gem, an extremely funny account of a man, a murder, and a town of equally entertaining characters.