Bottom Line: Bernie is Jack Black’s best work yet.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Brandon Smith, Jack Black, Juli Erickson, Larry Jack Dotson, Matthew McConaughey, Mona Lee Fultz, Rick Dial, Shirley MacLaine, Sonny Davis, Tommy G. Kendrick
It’s easy to admit that Jack Black has not crafted himself an all too commendable career. To name just one of his roles would get me spewing a barrage of films that would have quite simply been more memorable without him, so I will refrain from doing so. Bernie is the second collaboration in nine years between director Richard Linklater and Jack Black, following School of Rock. Knowing such, it’s automatic that most of our expectations are high. Yes, School of Rock featured Jack Black playing not much more than, well, Jack Black, but that performance stands out as by far the best comedic delivery in his entire career. Bernie does not star Mr. Black as his usual character, though. This is a far more dramatic role. Ironically, it’s handled in a straightforward, contained manner that makes any mark of stupid behavior or silly humor in the actor’s career utterly untraceable. I dare say he often appears to exceed the abilities of more generally talented performers such as Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, and is therefore the least of reasons to dismiss the film.
Set in the infinitesimal, rural town of Carthage, Texas, Bernie is a dark comedy about a 39-year-old funeral director named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). Everybody in the area knows his name; the story is told like a documentary through interviews from the townspeople who practically worship him for his great deeds. He’s also a bit of an oddball: for example, the opening twenty minutes celebrates almost one single joke, which is the peculiar way in which Bernie runs his church like a big-name business. All of this changes one day when Bernie becomes the companion of an 81-year-old widow referred to as Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, who in reality is 78). She quickly flip-flops from friendly to possessive of Bernie. Although many in the town realize what a shrew she is, none of them have been so close to her. After a long while of having to deal with this “friend”, Bernie impulsively murders Mrs. Nugent, but immediately hides her in a freezer. Knowing what a devout Christian and “people person” he is, it’s unclear whether he’s more worried about being arrested or what the community will now think of him.
Bernie is, in fact, based on a 1996 murder in Carthage, Texas. This largely important factoid is not revealed until the very end of the film (unless you somehow know what “article” is being referred to in the opening credits), and at first we aren’t quite sure whether to feel cheated by the film. Given some thought, the placement actually works well. We deserve to know that this was based on true events, don’t we? Had this title been placed in the very beginning, the humor would not have been nearly as effective, and the film would be far more suitable as a simple biopic. Second to a great performance, the laughs are the greatest standout the film has to offer. Not to mention, I can’t really see any of the humor offending the real Bernie Tiede or mocking the victim of the murder***, which makes this just as fair of an assessment of the crime as a mere drama would be.
It’s likely that although Bernie was given its theatrical release just less than four months ago, not too many have heard of it, and even fewer have seen it. The film was given a very limited release and therefore made only $8.4 million at the box office. This is quite a shame, considering how clever and well-made the film is. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, now that it’s publicly available on home video. Those who can appreciate the darkly seriocomic script on which this relies will easily find lots to guffaw at. It’s not an instant classic like Fargo, in which every possible risk is taken and achieved greatly, as far as attempts to make an audience burst into laughter during horrifying situations. It is, however, a witty and memorable “viewing”. (I apologize for the bad pun.)
***By critics, Bernie was a very well-received film, standing at 91% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 75 on Metacritic. On the other hand, it got mixed reception from those who resided in Carthage, Texas at the time of the murder and knew the story well. Some claimed the story was presented inaccurately, whereas others spoke the opposite side. Some also said that you can’t make a black comedy out of a murder. Let’s look back to a similar scenario 1985: Peter Weir’s Witness was received the same way by the Amish community whose land was used as a temporary filming location. By now, that film is an undeniable classic, so if we look at Bernie for what it is beyond a historically inaccurate account, it may be remembered as it deserves to be.