Never say never is the old cry and I remember, after seeing “Shallow Hal” and “Nacho Libre”, that I said I would never go again to see a movie that Jack Black was the top star. This afternoon I went to see “Bernie”, in which he plays the title role, and except for a few seconds here and there he is Bernie, not Jack Black. I went to see Shirley MacLaine and almost forgot very quickly that she was the co-star!
Who is Bernie? At one point it is asked if he is gay and after a local says he is ‘light in his loafers’ and the district attorney claims he knows that Bernie has had sex with two closet cases in town and we are shown him playing roles in, and directing, school and local musical projections like “The Music Man” plus singing, leading hymns in church the question is forgotten and really immaterial to the story.
In a story written by Richard Linklater, who also directed, and Skip Hollandsworth, based on the latter’s true story in the magazine Texas Monthly. It is a look at people who make up small towns and their reaction when something goes wrong. Bernie is a mortician who becomes beloved by most of the population of Carthage, Texas, who becomes very close to widow Marjorie Nugent who is disliked as much as Bernie is liked. He becomes her constant companion, traveling with her on trips to New York, overseas, going to concerts, having lunch together every day and moves in with her. While she thoroughly enjoys his attention and has no qualms about spending her money on their adventures she is soon becoming very demanding and wants him to be at her beck and call 24/7. It isn’t long before he shoots Nugent and hides her body in a freezer for 9 months. He confesses and then the picture becomes more of a fight by the citizens of Carthage arguing against his being punished.
The cast is absolutely wonderful, none more so than the real people of the town who become ‘talking heads’ giving their opinions on everyone and everything. Is it a drama or a comedy? Will you feel guilty laughing when they have to move the trail to another county because they wouldn’t be able to get a fair jury in Carthage since so many people love Bernie and think Marjorie got what she deserved? You are going to laugh a lot and, at the same time, feel guilty about laughing.
Jack Black, as Bernie, gives a restrained performance that has you rooting for him while Shirley MacLaine starts off like Ouiser, her character in “Steel Magnolias” but shows her loneliness taking her over. At this point I would say Jack Black may be in line for a slew of awards and possibly an Oscar nomination as he is that good.Matthew McConaughey, as the district attorney, goes over the top in a funny way but it is the ordinary folks of Carthage who are so endearing they make it almost impossible to tell them from the professional actors used.
Be sure to stay for the end credits and meet everyone in Carthage, Texas who has a say in “Bernie”. Once again a ‘small, independent’ film shows the big guys how it is done!