The combination of Jack Black and Richard Linklater proved enormously successful with the charming and energetic School of Rock. They reunite once more in a different kind of comedy, Bernie, which doesn’t quite match that success but still brings out the best in each other.
In Carthage, a small Texan town, local mortician Bernie Tiede enjoys life and his job. He especially takes delight in helping people through their sorrows, and slowly befriends recently-widowed Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). She is well-despised amongst the community for being cold and spiteful. She just also happens to be a millionaire.
Even though she is the complete opposite to that of loveable Bernie, together they become inseparable. Until one day he snaps and kills her, hiding her body in a freezer for nine months. With the town siding with him even after confessing, it is up to local district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to bring him to justice in the face of surprising support from the locals.
In what is no doubt a bizarre story, its mockumentary style accentuates the real-life nature of the event, just with the added dose of star power. McConaughey, continuing the re-imagining of his career, adds some clarity to the situation along with a genuine Texan drawl. McClaine plays the rich widow with despicable glee, enjoying the overpowering and intimidating facets of her character well. But the film will be rightly renowned for Black’s portrayal of an affable killer.
The effeminate and mild-mannered ways of Bernie is quite a departure from his usual manic fare, and he plays this with such charisma you do end up believing the incredible story of how he has endeared himself to a town to a point where he could literally get away with murder. His southern accent and Tenacious D type-singing are other notable aspects, and love or hate him, this is a near-perfect performance.
It’s a pity then that the execution and tone does not quite hit the mark. Having real Carthage townsfolk giving interviews is intriguing (even if we don’t know who are real and who are actors), however, this method of dotting the film with these titbits becomes ever so tedious. It’s understandable they are meant to add weight to the fact Bernie was some respected and much-loved member of the community, yet we get all that within the first act. What it does is merely breaks up the flow, regardless of how amusing their anecdotes might be, and in the end you do feel as though you are watching a documentary.
While it’s also true that having a real-life murderous event with a comedy slant may not warm everyone’s funny bones, its slow-pacing and dry humour encased around a dark situation will bring comparisons to a number of Coen brothers’s films. So in that respect Bernie is mildly pleasing with its disturbing laughs, owing a lot to Black for raising the profile of such an odd film – and although it may not be his funniest, it is certainly his finest.