‘Bernie’ a bounce-back role for Black
With “Bernie,” actor Jack Black and director Richard Linklater achieve a partial return to grace. Both men are genuine pop eccentrics whose careers have stalled in recent years, Black’s with mainstream crud like “Gulliver’s Travels,” Linklater’s with oddities like “Me and Orson Welles.” Their previous film together, 2003’s “The School of Rock,” was a commercial high-water mark for both men and, in a way, “Bernie” offers the duo a fresh beginning. It’s a true-crime black comedy that lets Linklater reconnect with the fondness for Texas oddballs that animated early films like “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused.” At the same time, Black gets to play an actual character instead of a loudmouthed cartoon. The movie’s bright and endearing and surprisingly lacking in a point. I wish I liked it better, but it’s a start.
“Bernie” is loosely based on the case of one Bernhardt Tiede, an assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, who in November 1996, shot and killed his aged companion, Marjorie Nugent, and is now serving life in prison. Structured as a loopy oral history, the film doesn’t deny that Bernie did it. Instead, it scratches its head over how a man this outgoing and well-loved by his community could pick up a rifle and pump four bullets into an old lady’s back.
Must’ve been because she was so cussed mean. As played by Shirley MacLaine with no loss of gumption at the age of 78, Marjorie is a snake who lets Bernie become her portly arm candy mostly because her husband’s dead and she needs someone to abuse. The most animated scenes in “Bernie” offer a contrast between the two stars’ playing styles: Black’s barely repressed mania and MacLaine’s calm professionalism. As Bernie befriends the rich widow and gradually becomes her factotum, vacation buddy, and legal heir, half the fun of MacLaine’s performance is in watching Marjorie figure how much torture Bernie can take.
But that’s not really what the movie’s about. The script, by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, gives generous screen time to the Carthage locals — played by a mix of Texas acting professionals and off-the-street “real folk” — and they all testify as on-camera witnesses to Bernie’s charm and Marjorie’s nastiness. This chicken-fried Greek chorus threatens to take over the movie, but because Linklater’s a native son, the portraiture is benignly wacky while staying just this side of condescension. (Plus, the animated chart of Texas sub-types is a handy guide for out-of-staters.)
To the Carthaginians and to us, Bernie is a curiosity: a bouncy, devout, deeply closeted pillar of the community who may simply love his little old ladies too much. Black throws himself into the part and eases back on the overkill; aspects of Bernie verge on caricature but only because that’s how he moves through the world, with a swish and a smile. He’s the local Liberace every small town has stashed away somewhere.
After a while, you sense the movie is content to tell its story without worrying about what it all means. Linklater is so beguiled by his extras that the main characters get short shrift. Only Matthew McConaughey makes a lasting impact as county D.A. Danny Buck, a good-old-boy glory hound who can’t believe the townspeople are rallying around a killer. It’s a sly comic portrait that sticks to the ribs, and I wish you could say the same about the title performance. There’s a sadness and a fury somewhere in Bernie Tiede, but Black only occasionally acknowledges it, and Linklater doesn’t seem interested. The film’s brisk, lightweight fun that floats away on a Texas breeze.