Jack Black reunites with School of Rock director Richard Linklater for this dark comedy about the murder of a wealthy, elderly Texan widow (Shirley MacLaine) by her middle-aged companion (Black). Matthew McConaughey plays the local DA. Based on a true story.
“A story so unbelievable it must be true,” the tagline declares, vaguely describing the murder of Marjorie Nugent at the hands of Bernie Tiede, the sweetest man in Carthage, Texas. And yet, despite the bizarre chain of true events that led to his imprisonment, Bernie is grounded in a delightful authenticity that prevents it from entering the realm of the absurd and implausible.
Director Richard Linklater knows how to get the most out of his actors (well, he tried his best with Keanu in A Scanner Darkly), conjuring fantastic, genuine performances once again from Jack Black as Tiede and Matthew McConaughey, the swaggering local District Attorney. Shirley MacLaine also busts out a great portrayal of Tiede’s sugar-mama über-bitch, at the level of quality typically expected from her.
Linklater’s true triumph, however, is in the way he flawlessly integrates the real-life testimonials of the townsfolk into the narrative. There is a unique collective personality to the small Texan community, one that is vital to understanding the unusual position Tiede is placed in. The town’s charm is impossible to replicate, and watching it being expressed naturally through Carthage's residents is an absolute joy.
That’s not to discredit the fiction at all. Bernie is a superbly written and lovingly told account of a quirky slice of American crime history with a tender bittersweet ending. Congratulations Jack Black, you made me forgive you for Gulliver’s Travels.