Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2012
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Genre: Comedy / Crime / Drama
Stars: 3 out of 5
True crime stories about murder in a small town are seldom funny. “Bernie” is the rare exception. This dark comedy has intrigue, murder, deception and humor with a twist. The movie tells the story of an aging socialite named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy widow who doesn’t have many friends. In fact, the entire town hates her. She is rude, sour and cruel. It is said that she has a black heart and even ripped the heads off her friend’s dolls as a child. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) befriends the elderly woman, and the two enter into a strange relationship. Tiede seems drawn to Nugent not for her money and lifestyle but because he genuinely cares for her.
Nugent is a lonely woman who enjoys the companionship. Tiede is a salesman who talks the widow into spending quite a bit of money, but he is not a charlatan. He’s a likeable, sweet man with many friends in town. However, a series of flashbacks reveals that Nugent was once cruel to her young friend. He was her prisoner and personal servant for six years. When he finally kills her, it feels like she had it coming.
Tiede decides to hide the murder. For months, he carries on about his business, pretending the widow is still alive. Remarkably, not one person in the town cares-except the local district attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey). Buck figures out that a crime has been committed and seeks justice for the slain heiress, which does not sit well with the members of the town. Most of them take Bernie’s side and plead for leniency. The consensus is that she deserved it, and many people would have killed her for free.
The movie explores the idea that a person can get away with anything if he is popular enough. Black brings his charm and charisma to the character of Bernie, who becomes a teddy bear of a man that anyone would want as a friend. Even in scenes where he seems a bit unscrupulous, Black is able to turn on his smile and make the audience like him. It is that single trait that propels the entire movie. The townspeople are so confused about Bernie’s relationship with the hated Nugent that they don’t even question why he killed her. The citizens actually accept that fact as if it were a foregone conclusion.
If Bernie is the loveable everyman, then Nugent is the bitter shrew. MacLaine breathes life into the wealthy widow, and she does it with complete conviction. Her deadpan delivery and lack of emotion are just what the character needs. She is completely unlikeable and the perfect complement to Bernie. She isn’t friendly, warm or sweet for even a second, and it really works for the film. MacLaine is brilliantly cast in this role.
McConaughey plays the character of Buck with desperation, exasperation and unyielding commitment, providing both drama and humor in this unlikely comedy. A character like this could easily have been played as a stereotype, but McConaughey uses his Texas charm to transform Buck into the only sane man in town. He is a welcome addition to this film.
Richard Linklater is no stranger to directing. He has a few comedies under his belt and previously directed Black in “School of Rock.” Linklater knows what is funny, but he also knows people. He knows how to make a character relatable, and he was able to take the story of a grisly murder and turn it into a must-see comedy. “Bernie” rides a fine line between genres, but Linklater is able to strike the balance in a documentary-style film with interviews and commentary from the locals. This style provides insight into the characters without seeming narrated or phony. Linklater allows the story to speak for itself, and the circumstances are strange enough as they are. He doesn’t add too much, which is why “Bernie” works so well.
Everything in this picture comes together just right. Jack Black fans will find him appealing and enjoyable as the title character. This is the kind of film that is rare in Hollywood. It’s a low-budget independent film with a strong cast and clear message. A black comedy can be difficult to pull off, but this one is a success. Audiences everywhere will find it entertaining, bizarre and mesmerizing, all at the same time.