Movie review: 'Bernie' is dark and compelling, featuring Jack Black at his best
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial
Directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, The School of Rock, Me and Orson Welles)
Opens Friday, May 25th, 2012
To say that everybody loved Bernie Tiede - the title character in Bernie - would be a massive under-statement. The flamboyant assistant funeral home director from the small town of Carthage, Texas was goodness personified...that is until he shot the wealthy 81 year-old widow Marjorie Nugent four times in the back.
Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent were real people, and Bernie outlines this so-bizarre-it-has-to-be-true tale almost as a documentary. The film introduces us to Bernie Tiede, and takes us all the way through the horrific murder, the media circus and the trial that followed. We hear from real folks from Carthage, and we know they are real because there is no faking this brand of Southern drawl. Between these real accounts, the story of Bernie and Mrs. Nugent is played out by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.
There is no describing the weird and stunning twists that occur in Bernie - this is no ordinary prolonged episode of Law & Order. Bernie was the nicest man anybody ever knew, and could sell ice to Eskimos. He sang at church, was involved in the community, and while working at the local funeral home, Bernie was an important person in the lives of all of the townspeople. He cared so much that he often would bring gifts to the newly widowed ladies, to ensure that they were cared for following their loss.
Marjorie Nugent was newly widowed, but she was about the polar opposite of Bernie. Old and mean, she had no family and no friends except the ones that she managed to completely shut out of her life.
It was the oddest of pairings then, when Bernie befriended the incredibly wealthy Mrs. Nugent. The two became very close...possibly romantically close. Bernie wasn't interested in women and the town had its suspicions, but Bernie and Marjorie's relationship grew. They travelled the globe, and were so attached that Marjorie actually gave Bernie the authority to spend her money too. Bernie had no problem spending Marjorie's money.
Eventually feeling suffocated by the old woman, Bernie inexplicably shoots her dead one day. He then puts her in a freezer box and carries on with his life for the next eight months before he is brought to justice.
So why did Bernie kill old Marjorie? Was it for the money? He spent almost all of her money bettering the town, investing in new local business, sending choir kids on road trips, and building a new church. If he wanted to get away with the crime, then why store the body? Not much about Bernie makes sense, which is why it is so fascinating.
To describe how well-liked Bernie is, his trial had to be moved from Carthage to a new city over 50 miles away so that he could receive a fair trial. Most trials that are moved are because the crime is so heinous, that the locals have already convicted the accused. In Bernie's case, the prosecutors were afraid that he'd be found innocent even after the truth was told.
The best roles are usually when you can't imagine anyone else playing a part, and Bernie is the perfect role for Jack Black. He gives one of the year's best performances thus far, mixing in humor with depth and darkness. Shirley MacLaine plays an old coot better than most, and the two are great together. Presented as half-drama and half-documentary, Linklater creates a very unique film that doesn't need to be showy - the interest comes from the craziness of the real-life story.
Bernie drifts a bit in the middle, and the trial at the end seems to go on a bit too long, but this unevenness is only a minor distraction. It's a light-hearted and whimsical film that just so happens to be about a brutal murder. It is equal part creepy and deliciously funny.
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