On Movies: 'Bernie' tells about a wonderful guy who happens to be a murderer
It’s hard to know how much of the plot of “Bernie” to reveal without spoiling it, so I’ll just quote the first paragraph of the jaw-droppingly funny 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” on the real case that inspired the movie. The piece by Skip Hollandsworth begins:
“Marjorie Nugent was the richest widow in an eccentric town full of rich widows. Bernie Tiede was an assistant funeral home director who became her companion. When she disappeared, nobody seemed alarmed. When he confessed to killing her, nobody seemed outraged.”
In the role of mild-mannered Bernie Tiede, Jack Black gives a priceless performance, beginning with the opening scene, when the prim, plump mortician stands in front of a room full of mortuary students and demonstrates how to get a corpse to look its best. There is something both funny and creepy about watching Bernie as he demonstrates the proper uses of tweezers, cosmetic brushes and Super Glue in making sure a dead man looks well-groomed for his final viewing.
When he is not prettifying corpses, Bernie sings in the church choir (Jack Black has a wonderful voice). He also organizes amateur theatricals and dotes on older women. He quickly becomes one of the most beloved men in Carthage, Texas.
Bernie has a meticulously trimmed black moustache that subliminally suggests there is something vaguely sinister about him, but the dozen or so Carthaginians who pop up on screen from time to time to offer their opinions of Bernie think he is a wonderful guy. They see nothing amiss when Bernie befriends and then becomes the constant companion of notably rich, notably mean, universally disliked widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who runs the bank she inherited from her husband as if it were a cutthroat collection agency. They do wonder how Bernie can stand being with her all the time and even, on the expensive trips they take, sleep in the same room with her.
Mrs. Nugent has no friends and no longer speaks to any of her relatives, who are a sorry lot in any case, so she becomes increasingly dependent upon Bernie, and increasingly demanding. She issues him a pager so she can get hold of him 24 hours a day, harangues him mercilessly, and humiliates him in public.
And then, one day, she disappears, and Bernie starts spending her money, mostly giving it to people who need it. Weeks go by, with Bernie making increasingly desperate explanations as to the widow’s current location, but most people in Carthage seem resolutely incurious about just where she is. They seem, as much as anything, relieved that they – and Bernie -- no longer have to deal with the obnoxious old bat.
Only the widow’s greedy financial adviser (Richard Robichaux) and the local district attorney (Matthew McConaughey, in a delicious little turn), seem concerned that Bernie may have killed Mrs. Nugent. Almost to a man and woman, the citizens of Carthage wish the DA would stop talking about murder charges and let Bernie alone so he can continue to shower affection, and money, on the people of the town.
Besides fine performances by Black, MacLaine and McConaughey, among others, “Bernie” succeeds because it manages to be both satirical and believable, both outrageous and oddly realistic. Richard Linklater, director and co-screenwriter (with Skip Hollandsworth), is a Texan. He doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at his homefolks, but he does it with a great deal of affection. When a local preacher suggests to the DA that he ought to think about going easy on Bernie, we understand that he speaks in both self-interest – Bernie donated money for a new wing on the church – and real fondness for the man.
Linklater, who also worked with Jack Black on the effervescent “School of Rock,” directs with punch and panache. Stay for the final credits to see the real Bernie and some very funny comments on the whole affair from the real citizens of Carthage, some of whom, we realize, played themselves in the movie. Knowing that just adds to our appreciation of this funny and surprisingly sweet story about the mortician who charmed the widows of Carthage.
Opens Friday May 18