If there is a dream team in modern American comedies, it might just be Richard Linklater and Jack Black. The two haven't worked together since 2003's The School of Rock — a film that bore all the hallmarks of successful collaboration — and since then Black, aside from a passable turn in King Kong, has been confined mainly to guest spots on television comedies and voice work in big-screen animation.
Not until Bernie, however, has any project been so tailor-made for his talents. To tell the mystifying, jaw-dropping story of Bernie Tiede, a real-life East Texas undertaker's assistant who confessed to killing his aging benefactress, Black sings, dances and charms his way around a character whose larger-than-life personality almost demands parody.
Yet the wonder of Black's performance here is its empathy and balance: inasmuch as he can disappear into any role, he dissolves into this one with no hint of mocking remove. It's a beautiful thing to see.
In fact, Black exerts so much command over the role that we wish his director had trusted him to fully embrace the darkness of the material; Linklater's comedic tone remains soft gray rather than jet black.
"What you're fixin' to see is a true story," a title card informs us, its winking tone continued in the film's mockumentary structure. Introduced as he delivers a seminar on appropriate corpse cosmetology — "You wouldn't want a mechanic to have the nails of a flight attendant, would you?" — Bernie and his fastidious fingers are all over the tiny town of Carthage. Charismatic and devout, as active in local musical theater as in the embalming room, ever ready to raise his voice in praise and comfort the bereaved, he is universally beloved.
Especially by the town's DLOLs — dear little old ladies — who adore him while gleefully debating his sexual orientation. But when Bernie becomes the constant companion of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent (a scowling Shirley MacLaine), the town's meanest and wealthiest old biddy, whose own family loathes her, the demands of the relationship soon begin to chafe.
"Bernie became her property," confides a local worthy with a tight-lipped nod, as though straining to suppress more salacious revelations. These chatty interviews, sprinkled liberally throughout the film and delivered straight to camera by a gaggle of the town's residents, are so rich in folksy pronouncements that they effortlessly ground the film in a very specific small-town sensibility.
The sense of place is so strong, in fact, that it can drain focus from our roly-poly protagonist, and at times Linklater, a native Texan, seems more committed to portraying community loyalty than to delving into the mind of a killer. As a result, Bernie himself appears sui generis, an asexual enigma with no past, no relatives and apparently no motives. This last is both blessing and curse for the town's crafty D.A. (Matthew McConaughey, having a high old time), whose prosecution of the town pet presents an uphill battle.
Shamelessly predisposed toward its subject, Bernie (based on a 1998 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth) is an eccentric delight. We may know little more about its antihero at the end than we did at the beginning, but the journey is more than worth the price of admission. (Recommended)