A mortician – excuse me, funeral director – strikes up an unusual friendship with a rich widow in a tiny rural town. Bernie Tiede is an upstanding member of the community, well liked by all. Marjorie Nugent, on the other hand is a mean, spiteful old woman. After her husband dies, she takes over her husband’s business with stern control. She’s the kind of woman that turns down loan applications at the bank simply because she enjoys telling people NO. Bernie makes several attempts to befriend Marjorie. She eventually relents. They become close – attending church services, having lunch together and taking little road trips. Pretty soon, they’re traveling to Broadway shows, embarking on cruises and flying to far off places like Egypt and Russia, always in first class of course. The townspeople begin to talk.
Bernie is an odd picture. This marks the second time that director Richard Linklater and Jack Black have worked together. 2003’s The School of Rock was a highly successful collaboration that remains Linklater’s biggest hit. Bernie is based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by journalist Skip Hollandsworth who also co-wrote the screenplay. In that publication, he chronicled the real relationship between Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas. While the rhythms of Bernie are a bit quirky for mainstream tastes, it’s still a rewarding experience.
Bernie’s motives remain refreshingly ambiguous. Whether he befriends this unlikable but wealthy woman out of the goodness of his heart or if he’s more of an opportunist with monetary objectives, it’s not quite clear. The community clearly loves Bernie and hates Marjorie. They defend his reputation to the utmost degree. At times Linklater features the actual townspeople talking directly to the camera regarding the principal couple. It’s during these perfectly blended segments that the proceedings feel like a documentary. The authentic recollections of the residents of Carthage are some of the most memorable moments in the entire production. The colorful array of the people involved, invokes a comedic element. Yet the tone is never mocking.
The account is an equal mix of dark comedy and serious drama. On the surface, the script is somewhat uneventful, but taken as a whole it’s rather engaging. Having few lines, Shirley MacLaine must rely mostly on facial expressions and body language to portray Marjorie Nugent. This is Bernie’s movie, told from his perspective. Jack Black plays the title character with an effeminately sunny disposition. At first it’s a little one-note, but look deeper and you’ll find what he does here is brilliantly subtle. He makes the townsfolk’s reactions to what ultimately happens, easier to comprehend. The aftermath is rendered darkly humorous. The plot takes an admittedly grave turn, but the script remains indifferent. Linklater doesn’t persuade, only presents. As a result the narrative is lacking in a purposeful point of view, but that’s its allure. Indeed it’s difficult to tell just how the filmmaker regards his subjects. It’s a tribute to his direction that the mood is decidedly more “I’d like to introduce you to these people that really exist” instead of “look at how ridiculous these people are.” It’s up to the viewer to make a judgment. That’s where this modest little film succeeds.