Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth. Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. Running time: 110 minutes. Not rated.
It's easy to see why filmmaker Richard Linklater (School Of Rock, Dazed And Confused) was drawn to the true-crime story of Bernie Tiede, a selfless and beloved mortician in Carthage, TX, who murdered Marjorie Nugent, the meanest old lady in town. It's just not clear what point the filmmaker was trying to make with this breezy and mordantly comedic docu-drama.
With its quirky characters and cultural specificity, comparisons to the Coen Brothers' Fargo will be inevitable. But Linklater's approach is as ambling and endearing as its sunny East Texas setting, a far cry from the snarky genre deconstructions and eccentric morality plays that populate the Coens' work. Instead, Bernie plays like In Cold Blood — if it had been directed by Christopher Guest.
Bernie (Jack Black), is a sweet-natured, ambiguously gay assistant funeral director known for comforting the bereaved, singing at the local church, and volunteering at just about every community function (from directing musical theater to coaching little league to helping locals with their tax returns). With his stubby mustache, high-waisted pants, and endless positivity, everyone is charmed — including the recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). A nasty but rich old woman, Bernie offers her companionship and ends up her most-trusted confidante. The upside is that Bernie gets to partake in her wealth, traveling the world and even learning to fly. The downside is that Marjorie becomes unbearably demanding, abusive, and possessive. This drives Bernie to impulsively shoot her in the back four times, stuff her body in the freezer, and start lying about her absence — as he spends down her fortune, mostly by giving gifts and donations to members of the community.
Inspired by an article written by Skip Hollandsworth (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater) for Texas Monthly, Linklater, who said he was interested in creating "a movie told from the perspective of a group of gossips," makes the fascinating choice to regularly cut away from the film's action to interview the real-life residents of Carthage. Guileless, opinionated, and frequently hilarious, their presence almost creates a meta-narrative, one that forensically examines the community rather than the crime.
Unfortunately, the approach doesn't quite work. Instead of letting the story expand and deepen our understanding of Bernie and Marjorie, Linklater mostly echoes what we're told by the townsfolk while diligently dramatizing the facts of the case. As a result, the story loses momentum when it should be building some level of intrigue or suspense. After all, Bernie spent the better part of a year looking over his shoulder. More disappointingly, Linklater barely acknowledges the collective impact of class and culture on this Bible Belt community's psyche, even as both clearly test the tall walls of Southern civility.
Trickier still is that the movie, like the people of Carthage, is more sympathetic to the murderer than the victim. Local D.A. Danny Buck Davidson, played with laid-back brio by Matthew McConaughey, tries to remind his neighbors (and the audience) that murder is murder, no matter how unpleasant the victim was. His arguments fall on deaf ears, forcing him to relocate the trial to a town less sympathetic to the killer.
Black gives a beautifully disciplined and sincere performance, portraying Bernie as an exquisitely mannered eccentric who is completely unaware of his unconventional nature. Affable and empathetic, he never wavers in his commitment to character. And much like the rest of the film, never gives us a peak inside, keeping everything opaque and on the surface.
What made Bernie attracted to Marjorie in the first place? What made him snap? How did he manage to deceive so many people? No one in the community or on the film seems sure. And that's where Bernie comes up short. Because as bright, funny, and genial as Linklater's film is, it's never curious or impolite enough to hint at an answer.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.