Grade: A- (SEE IT)
THERE ARE ONLY a handful of comic actors, Woody Allen and Jim Carrey included, who elicit laughter through the sheer power of body language. Jack Black is certainly amongst those funnymen and, as the eponymous Bernie, with his high belt-line and caterpillar mustache, he resembles a plus-size Robert Goulet. Beloved by his Texan townsmen, he belts out gospel tunes and dons a sparkling white bandleader outfit in a local production of “The Music Man.” You won’t see a funnier image this year than that of Black and steel magnolia Shirley MacLaine riding together on a tandem bike. You also won’t see a better batch of black comedy than “Bernie” this year.
Inspired by a true crime in the East Texas town of Carthage (population 6,500), “Bernie” uses a mockumentary-style to narrate the story of a popular funeral director, Bernie Tiede, who wooed and wed an old widow before shooting her four times in the back with a gun used to kill armadillos in her garden. Working from an article by Skip Hollandsworth, director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock”) sets the morbid mood by opening the film in a mortuary class with Bernie offering the basics of beautifying the dead. “A little dab will do you,” Bernie instructs, before gluing his cadaver’s lips and eyelids together and adding: “You cannot have grief tragically becoming comedy.” That serves as an apt description of the film’s aesthetic, a hybrid of the Coen brothers and Christopher Guest. So, too, does “The Music Man” with its con-man crooner and “Les Misérables” with its policeman Javert in obsessive pursuit of Jean Valjean. Here, Matthew McConaughey (reveling in his role as District Attorney Danny Buck) is the Javert-like lawman who isn’t fooled by Bernie’s likability. Bernie is so likable, in fact, that Buck has to prosecute him miles from Carthage because of jury bias.
As the sourpuss Marjorie Nugent, MacLaine makes a vibrant return to the screen. No starring role has called the veteran actress’s name since she played fashion icon Coco Chanel in 2008 and Hollandsworth’s script, co-written with Linklater, is indeed worthy of her comic talents. Yes, Marjorie is a demanding old lady who bosses Bernie around and drives him to an impulsive act of homicide but she is also a lonely soul, isolated from friends and family through decades-old grudges, and more than simple caricature. “I can’t think of a man that has been this nice to me in fifty years,” she says of Bernie. The pair’s intergenerational romance is one of the strangest things in contemporary cinema: is Bernie a paramour or merely a parasite? The movie smartly doesn’t say. There are even chapter titles that turn “Bernie” into a morality play, one of which asks: “Was Bernie Gay?” Black knows just how to embody this mysterious figure and cryogenically frozen in character, he has the sunny disposition of a TV evangelist shot through with something unsettling and sad. Stick around for the credits and see the real-life Bernie and Marjorie. Consider it the sweet hereafter.