Bernie feels more like a Christopher Guest film than a Richard Linklater, and I mean that as an utmost compliment. It reminds me so much of Waiting for Guffman, a cacophony of amazing supporting small town performers surrounding the three leads who simply kill it. Based on a true story, Bernie is about a fussy little mortician in a small Texas town who befriends the town harridan. He accidentally kills her, and then attempts to hide the body while tending to her finances. It’s actually kind of an old story - wealthy widow wooed and wasted by younger man - and in other hands it would be more comedy of errors than comedy of manners. Linklater knows small-town Texas, and so he creates an extremely competent fictionalized true crime documentary, something you’d see on Unsolved Mysteries or America’s Most Wanted. It’s brutally funny and very sad, and it feels honest. For people sick of the rig-a-dig-doo manic-bulldog Jack Black or the alright-alright surf-slack McConaughey, you will be pleasantly surprised with their performances. Bernie is yet further proof that Richard Linklater is willing to take wild chances and take adventurous paths with his films.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a pillar of the community. A prissy little pudgeball, he sings angelically in the church choir and works in the local mortuary. Everyone loves him, but also agrees he’s a bit of an odd duck. Bernie strikes up a friendship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy widow who’s got a reputation for being a stone cold bitch. Bernie becomes her man Friday and constant companion, helping her with bills, taking care of her chores, taking her on vacations. It’s much stranger than a gigolo situation - he’s too nice to tell her to fuck off when she becomes possessive of his companionship. The murder itself is really disturbing and staggering, and then Bernie basically spends the rest of the film fictionally keeping Marjorie alive. He’s doggedly prosecuted by Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), a politician first and fierce lawyer second.
Linklater uses interviews with actual townspeople as color commentary and that’s where the real charm of the film lies. The morality is exquisitely gray, in that people loved Bernie and hated Marjorie. But they also thought Bernie was a bit unusual - why would this young man (who may or may not have been gay) take care of this shrewish older woman if not for financial gain? Bernie used Marjorie’s finances to go on vacations and to sponsor local programs and as donations to the local church. Bernie is unaccountably guilty, and yet the film paints him positively. The townsfolk advance the plot: Black, MacLaine and McConaughey are dramatic recreationists.
MacLaine’s always good, and she’s the low-fat version of Kathy Bates’s country-fried fiery bitch. This is McConaughey’s second excellent turn as a shady lawyer, and it’s a hell of a performance. For a dude who spent most of his career Owenwilsoning his shirtless way through life, I would be perfectly content if he basically wore suits and played assholes for the rest of it. People gave Cruise kudos for his Tropic Thunder bravado, but McConaughey’s even better. Danny Buck’s the closest thing to a cartoon in the film, a Foghorn Leghorn schoolmarm insisting that we follow the damn rules. He’s only trumped by Jack Black’s Bernie, a dynamite turn for Black. It’s the closest I think we’ve seen him ever coming to the dramatic, and he’s really good. It takes advantage of his spectacular singing voice, while also giving him a mincing character with heart. It’s could easily have gone Nathan Lane, but it just toes the line so carefully. Jack Black is awesome when he plays Jack Black, but this is a way I have never seen him. Linklater made me believe Zac Efron was more than just a half-elf sent to bespoil cheerleaders when he cast him in Me and Orson Welles, and he’s turned Jack Black into a viable actor. Giamatti’s he’s not, but he’s getting there.
A quick perusal of Linklater’s curriculum vitae is proof positive that he’s not one to fall into a niche. He’s done slacker indie, big budget remake, children’s films, strange experimental animations, and now he’s done a pseudo-documentary. Bernie’s a surprisingly fun film without making fun of its subject. The townspeople are hilarious and homebrewed, but not gross belt-buckle hitching chawdippers. You almost want to hold down a studio exec and say, “LOOK! LOOK! LOOK DAMN YOUR EYES LOOK!” Linklater’s doing his own thing, but he’s shown that he can pull some brilliant performances out of unlikely actors. It’s a damn fine film, and I hope you get the opportunity to catch it.