“A story so unbelievable it must be true.”
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Synopsis: In small-town Texas, an affable mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when she starts to become controlling, he goes to great lengths to separate himself from her grasp.
Richard Linklater’s decision to make Bernie, the true-life account of a small-town murder, as a semi-mockumentary featuring some actual residents of the Texan town of Carthage, is only partly successful. It’s interesting to hear first-hand accounts – even though most of the interviewees simply repeat one another’s assertions of what a genuinely nice guy Bernie Tiede was – but the constant breaks in the story for these interviews interrupts the flow of the narrative, leaving us with a disjointed tale at times.
Jack Black plays against type as Bernie Tiede, an effeminate mortician with an over-developed community spirit, who befriends the curmudgeonly town matriarch Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine – The Apartment, My Geisha) only to find her bullying dependence upon him so intolerable that he ends up shooting her in the back. Hiding her body in a freezer, Bernie then commences to spend her money on a variety of charitable causes, and when his crime is eventually uncovered, the authorities are bemused to discover that the entire town is firmly in support of Bernie and the crime he committed.
It’s one of those stories that’s too strange to be fiction, and seems perfect for a black comedy, but Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s treatment is sadly neither dark enough or funny enough. Black is terrific as the prissy Teide, taking immense pride in the service he offers the community and suffering Marjorie’s overbearing tantrums with admirable stoicism until he snaps, and Maclaine, an actress who seems incapable of delivering a sub-standard performance, makes an indelible impression as Marjorie. It’s just a shame the quirky material isn’t quite up to the standard it might have been. The real Teide, incidentally, has now been released from prison on the condition that he lives in a garage apartment in Linklater’s home – which, itself, provides an admirably off-the-wall coda to the movie…
(Reviewed 12th November 2014)