A People Person to the End
Richard Linklater and Jack Black first teamed up for School of Rock, a comedy that perfectly fused (and mainstreamed) Black’s live-wire comic energy and Linklater’s loose, sweet-natured filmmaking. Their reunion, Bernie, isn’t much like Rock or any of Black’s or Linklater’s other projects—it’s a dark-ish, deadpan, fact-based semi-comedy about the murder of an elderly woman—and yet, it’s also a surprisingly comfortable fit for two noted chroniclers of slacker life.
Black, of course, is known for his mad energy; here he plays against his demon-id type as Bernie Tiede, a sweet, portly mortician who’s well liked in Carthage, the “best small town in Texas,” according to bumper stickers. The movie opens with Bernie teaching a class on body preparation, applying just enough make-up and tilting the head at just the right angle to maximize the appearance of peacefulness. He excels not just at preparation, but also “any aspect of the funeral business,” selling caskets, speaking and singing at services, and comforting widows.
He even manages to befriend Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), by consensus the most unpleasant widow in Carthage. She meets his friendliness with curt resistance at first, but eventually Bernie is accompanying her to dinner, around town, and even on elaborate vacations, all paid for by the wealthy Marjorie. Her money provides some motivation for Bernie to stick around, but for a time her company seems to please him, too; perhaps he enjoys a challenge that few of Marjorie’s acquaintances or even family are willing to meet.
Their reluctance becomes understandable as Bernie and Marjorie’s relationship curdles; he finds himself treated as a full staff of one, tending to her every whim. He cooks, cleans, drives, and watches as she chews each bite of food 27 times. Unable to extricate himself from the situation—too eager to please, too polite to tell the old woman off—Bernie takes drastic, impulsive, illegal action. Soon no one in Carthage is seeing much of Marjorie Nugent, though Bernie carries about his business as usual, insisting that she’s had some medical trouble and is staying out of sight, refusing calls and visitors.
Most of the townspeople have no trouble believing good old Bernie, even after he’s arrested and changes his story. We know their opinions on the matter because Linklater makes the unusual decision to tell much of the story through interviews with actual Carthage residents, then mixing that footage with dramatizations by his actors (including Matthew McConaughey, amusing as the DA flabbergasted by the town’s support for Bernie).The interviewees are folksy, good-natured, and a little gossipy; for the most part, they’re also quite protective of Bernie.
In these moments, Bernie—based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article about a real murder—is a Texas story, more specifically, an East Texas story. Early in the film, one local explains differences between the state’s various geographical regions with matter-of-fact confidence, and later, elaborates on the location of Bernie’s trial with hilarious disdain. At times, the movie takes the tone of a mockumentary, though Linklater, a born-and-bred Texan, isn’t out to mock the townspeople so much as observe their attitudes toward one of their own.
The film lets 20 or 30 minutes pass before including any direct supposition that Bernie might be gay (as he is in real life). His cordial, lilting manner of speaking, passion for decorating, and pointed lack of female company his own age indicate as much, but Black’s version of Bernie doesn’t come “out.” A people person to the end, he resists taking that risk. Black’s quiet performance here is excellent, as he slips into character without lapsing into caricature. Unlike so many of Black’s plainly flailing characters, Bernie strives to keep himself composed and social, and so the movie finds uncommon outlets for Black’s actorly trademarks: his robust singing voice, for example, is applied to Bernie’s funeral performances and dallying into local musical theater (Black sings more in this movie than any he’s made since his Tenacious D feature).
Black and the townspeople are pretty much the whole show, because the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie remains opaque. MacLaine plays her with a certain subdued dignity (she’s an awful person, but not a screeching cartoon), yet she’s not very convincing as that person either. The movie gives little hint of motivation when Marjorie turns on Bernie (and everyone else in her life) so viciously and possessively, as if it’s not interested in her darkness, or Bernie’s, for that matter. (Some of the more ghoulish cleanup details occur off-screen.) Bernie‘s mildly satirical tone doesn’t allow for much tension, comic or otherwise. As such, it’s a curiosity in both form and content, a strange, darkly amusing little story told as if from a Carthage porch.