More than the film that surrounds him, Jack Black is worth the price of admission in Bernie, an oddball May-December true life crime story that would have profited from being a whole lot darker and full-bodied than it is. It took Richard Linklater the better part of a decade to put together this seriocomic look at Bernie Tiede, a fastidious, devout mortician who befriended the crabbiest rich old lady in Carthage, Texas, and was later tried for her murder. The result, however, comes across as less impassioned than mild-mannered, a conflicted portrait of small town attitudes but, most importantly, an opportunity for Black to sink his teeth into a role unlike any he’s ever played before. It’s hard to imagine what the audience may be for this odd duck of a film, which opened the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival and has no distributor as yet, but it’s safe to say that the box office tally won’t come anywhere near that of the previous Linklater-Black collaboration, The School of Rock, eight years ago.
In the summer of 1997, 40-year-old Bernie Tiede was arrested for the murder the previous year of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a multimillionaire heiress with whom he had been living. No one in the tight-knit, religious town could believe it, as Bernie was considered the nicest, most considerate man in the world, especially as he had been able to charm and disarm the widely detested Marjorie, who hadn’t talked to her own offspring in years.
Working with co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, whose Texas Monthly article served as the basis for the script, Linklater presents Bernie through the eyes of the citizens of Carthage, literally so, as a vast array of genuine locals, mostly older folk, offer up interview-style comments throughout to illuminate aspects of the main characters. While some of these remarks are amusing for the opinionated, down-home tenor, Linklater relies upon them far too much, to the point where they seem like a convenient crutch to avoid dramatizing issues and make Bernie feel more like a docudrama than it should.
Introduced at the outset as “an artist in the embalming room” after he arrives in town to take the job of assistant funeral director at the local mortuary, Bernie is an immaculately groomed gentleman with impeccable diction and a mincing walk who often places his clasped hands on his large belly when he talks. Endlessly solicitous of everyone he encounters and ever-ready with the right words for the bereaved, he has a particular appeal for the little old ladies of the small town where everyone knows everyone else, even if his sexual orientation remains the subject of considerable local debate.
“All the widows in town had a crush on Bernie,” one witness confides, so it is regarded with some astonishment when he becomes close to Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), the universally reviled old crab apple who deigns to speak to no one. Slowly melted by Bernie’s extravagant attention, Marjorie soon has him move into her mansion, the walls of which are festooned with the full bodies of large hunted animals, takes him on extravagant trips and writes her grown children out of her will, leaving everything to Bernie.
With Marjorie’s murder at the 50-minute point, the tone unavoidably shifts, but more from the turn of events than from any stylistic control the director engineers. For nine months, the always reclusive Marjorie is barely missed but, when her remains are finally discovered, Bernie is arrested and tried by wily D.A. Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey).
The material offers possibilities for all manner of artistic approaches: Deep black comedy, mordant character study, a look at social mores and hypocrisy, a consideration of legal and religious attitudes. Black’s marvelously judged performance, which is drippingly ripe but pitched just enough toward seriousness to be entirely credible, brings to mind such previous high-wire acts as, on the benign side, Charles Laughton’s priceless turn as the obsequious butler in Ruggles of Red Gap and, in the malevolent direction, Alec Guinness’ memorable predator in The Ladykillers.
In all events, Black’s characterization is strong enough to have accommodated any approach, but Linklater establishes no incisive point of view or sense of a bigger picture; in the end, the film is too mild for the insidious incident that anchors it.
Carthage, in East Texas, is clearly positioned as being “where the South begins” rather than as culturally unified with the rest of the state, and the film’s sense of regional specificity has keen appeal. Although indisputably expressing Marjorie’s hatefulness, MacLaine gives a one-note performance with no variable human traits running underneath, while McConaughey provides a creepy undercurrent to his good ol’ boy lawman.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival, Opening Night film
Production: Mandalay Vision, Wild Dancer Films, Detour Filmproduction
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman, Richard Robichaux, Rick Dial
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth, based on a Texas Monthly article by Hollandsworth
Producers: Celine Rattray, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Mark Mower, Judd Payne, Dete Meserve, Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater
Executive producers: Don Fox, Darby Parker, Johnny Lin, Ken Hirsh, William T. Conway, Jack Gilardi Jr., Michael Bassick, Duncan Montgomery, Jack Selby, Alex Gudim
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Sandra Adair
Music: Graham Reynolds