One of the many delights of Bernie, the offbeat new comedy by Richard Linklater, is that it is fresh, surprising and funny without going for sitcom punch lines or ridiculous, contrived situations inserted for guffaws. It’s not hilarious. It’s just warm and real enough to keep you smiling and awed at the same time. It is also the only movie I have ever liked Jack Black in, one of the few times Matthew McConaughey, a terrible actor, has ever come anywhere close to giving a tolerable performance, and features Shirley MacLaine’s best role in years. A lot to like here, and I liked it all.
Bernie, based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” is the eccentric true crime story of a 1997 murder in Carthage, Texas, in which 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, the richest, meanest and most hated woman in East Texas, was found stuffed in the bottom of her freezer, hammered to death by her lover, best friend and devoted heir, a porky mortician named Bernie Tiede. It was a headline-making scandal, but the friends and neighbors of the beloved Bernie rallied to his defense and turned him into a hero. This is the story, told in a mock documentary style that derives most of its humor from interviews with actual citizens of Carthage who showered Bernie with support and rallied no sympathy for his murder victim. It is quite a story, and an unusual movie more merry than morbid.
From his arrival in Carthage, Bernie was a hands-on, give-it-all-you-got kind of guy, tending his corpses at the local funeral parlor with loving care—shaving facial hair from their nostrils, inserting super glue on their eyelids to avoid embarrassing last-minute surprises in the coffin, even filling their mouths with rubber balls to prevent drooping jaws in open-casket viewings. Bernie won kudos for his tender talent for body removal and his artistry for embalming and cosmetology. With no experience, he was a fast learner and in no time became an expert on car wrecks, heart attacks and household poisons, making his clients feel special. Business boomed and everyone went to Bernie. Then he met his match in a monstrous old trout named Marjorie Nugent.
When her husband, a Texas oil man named Bubba, passed on, “Miss Margie” went through the motions of a funeral like everyone else, hating everything and every mourner, cutting her relatives out of the will, and living up to the town’s assessment of her as a “mean old hateful bitch.” When we first see Shirley MacLaine, scowling with venom, her face screwed into wrinkled ridges of sour dough, her eyes slits of reptilian fury reducing everything in sight to ashes, she looks like a pterodactyl. But Bernie was determined to win her over. Considering it part of his job to visit widows after their husband’s memorials, he delivered gifts to her gated manse only to get the door slammed in his face. But eventually she started to thaw when he took her to events like the Van Cliburn piano competitions in Fort Worth. (This is Texas. Expectations do not run high. You do what you can to hold on to your sanity.) Soft as dough, fastidious to a fault, smelling of cologne and more than a wee bit androgynous, Bernie even sang show tunes in local stage shows and collected men’s fitness magazines. Was he gay? Small-town rumors dominated front porch gossip, but Miss Margie didn’t care. She had found a devoted new slave, appointed him her business manager, and even took him on vacation trips, platonically sharing the same bedroom. Her appalled relatives grew more aghast when she left her entire estate to Bernie in exchange for pedicures, makeup applications and Lysoling her kitchen counters. Whenever he got out of line, she would chew her food 20 times, noisily and annoyingly, to drive him to distraction. But as Bernie grew more disillusioned with his meal ticket, the citizens of Carthage cemented their affection for Bernie as he bought them gifts, offered financial advice and paid for a new prayer wing at the Methodist church. Growing more jealous by the day, Miss Margie turned possessive and so unbearable that convenient garden tools became irresistible. But Mr. Linklater’s talent for drawing out the most intimate, unedited and inadvertently charming responses from people in coffee shops and wicker rocking chairs turns even tragedy into chuckles of joy.
Jack Black displays an unctuous, mustachioed sweetness punctuated by a welcome restraint he’s never shown before. (He even sings “Love Lifted Me.”) It can’t be easy for the great Shirley MacLaine to find juicy roles at this time and place in movie history, but she is both fearless and miraculous in her total concentration on playing a human dragon. Age and the weather have robbed her of nothing in the way of comic timing and technique. The events in Bernie are tied together by interviews with corny down-home locals who, without knowing it, could easily do skits on Saturday Night Live. When Bernie goes to trial, the State of Texas even moves to change the location because the defendant is so popular the prosecutors fear they can’t get a conviction. The only person who seeks justice (for highly suspicious personal reasons) is the district attorney who acts like a sheriff, Danny Buck Davidson, played by Matthew McConaughey with his usual tongue-swallowing drawl but more charisma than usual. Even his questionable dedication to law and order has limits; the town turns the trial into a picnic, selling pimento cheese sandwiches on the courthouse lawn.
It’s a delectable slice of Southern Gothic humor, a side show of rednecks and Bubbas and Aunt Tooties—probably actors, but so convincing they seem like real people playing themselves. But it’s all true, and so is the dialogue. Mr. Linklater has always demonstrated a keen ear for what people say and his direction, of both pros and amateurs, has compassion and insight for details. Actual newspaper clippings act as visual guides, illustrating the mayhem. Even in prison, Bernie’s indefatigable adventures continue. Would you believe he now gives cooking lessons to the other inmates and conducts Bible studies behind bars while his friends await his return to Carthage? This is all public record, and the story is far from over. I, for one, eagerly await the sequel to Bernie.
Running Time 104 minutes
Written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey