PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
In small-town Carthage, Texas, local assistant mortician Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a beloved member of the community, becomes the only friend of the wealthy, recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who is widely considered cold and unpleasant by the other townsfolk. Tiede, in his late 30s, and the elderly Nugent quickly become inseparable, frequently traveling and lunching together, though Tiede’s social life becomes hindered by Nugent’s constant and sometimes abusive need for his attention.
Tiede murders Nugent after growing weary of the emotional toll of her possessiveness, persistent nagging and non-stop putdowns. For nine months, Tiede takes advantage of her poor reputation to excuse her absence with few questions while using her money to support local businesses and neighbors. Finally, Nugent’s stockbroker becomes concerned by her absence and enlists the help of her estranged family by using Tiede’s neglect of payments previously agreed upon by the family. This results in an authorized police search of her house that concludes with the discovery of her body in a meat freezer.
The local district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) charges Tiede with first-degree (premeditated) murder. Tiede is arrested and he soon confesses that he killed Nugent while claiming her emotional abuse as a mitigating circumstance. Despite this confession, many citizens of Carthage still rally to the murderer’s defense, with some even asserting that Nugent deserved to die. Frustrated, Davidson successfully requests a change of venue to the town of San Augustine, 50 miles away, to avoid selecting a biased jury. Despite the absence of evidence of premeditation, Tiede is found guilty as charged and imprisoned for life.
Bernie is a true story, ya’ll. I kid you not, the first title card we see says, “you are fixin’ to see a true story”. The fact that it was written like that should tell you that this is not going to be some heavy-handed true life drama like other true stories we’ve seen over time.
What is this about?
In this black comedy inspired by a true story, affable Texas mortician Bernie befriends the small town’s wealthiest widow and then kills her. But despite the suspicious nature of her death, no one wants to think anything but the best of Bernie.
What did I like?
Different. I’m not exactly a huge fan of Jack Black. I find his comedy too…something…for my taste. So, the fact that he was starring in this film was a bit of a red flag for me, but he actually did a real good job. Apparently, others thought so too, because he was nominated for Best Actor Golden Globe. Stepping out of the box was good for Black. Maybe he should do it more often and continue to grow as an actor, rather than keep retreading on his tired schtick (which has been improved upon by Zach Galifianakis).
Townsfolk. Judging by the end credits, it seems that the townspeople used for the documentary setting of this are perhaps real people from Carthage, TX. Just like any other small town, they are quite the colorful bunch of characters. The little anecdotes they provide really spice things up.
76 trombones. The classic song from The Music Man, “76 Trombones” is performed by Bernie and his little theatre troupe. As a huge of the musical, it isn’t the best version, but it isn’t the worst. A very respectable version of it, if I say so myself. I wonder who thought to put that in there, because it was a stroke of genius!
What didn’t I like?
Lowlife. Bernie is so loved in this town that it seems as if no one really cared that he allegedly murdered this woman, plus she wasn’t exactly Little Miss Sunshine. Listening to the testimonies, all the people loved him, even when they were talking smack about him, but there was this one guy, the D.A., played by Matthew McCounaughey who, in today’s vernacular, is a “hater”. He’s so anti-Bernie that he gets the trial moved to a different town just so that he can get a win. That’s some low-level, dirty handed tactics, but he is a lawyer.
Don’t call me Shirley. It seems like every film I see Shirley MacLaine in nowadays, she’s playing the bitter old woman character. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe this can be traced back to Steel Magnolias. Ouizer was a great character, don’t get me wrong, but I’m starting to wonder if she’s not like this in real life now because of all these rather unpleasant women she’s been on screen.
Mix and match. Two things bother me about this flick. First, they show the real Bernie Tiede at the end, and Jack Black doesn’t look anything like him. Truthfully, that isn’t that big of a deal, but I have to wonder if Black is doing a caricature of Bernie, or if he really is like this. Since we never hear him talk, one can’t really say. Second, the tone of the film is a bit of an issue. It starts off as a bit of a comedy, then turns into a legal drama of sorts. Personally, I think this film would be better served sticking with the dark comedy angle, rather than turning into Law & Order: Carthage, TX.
Bernie is one of those films that gets talked about but no one remembers even hearing about it when it was in theaters. I don’t even recall seeing a trailer for it, though I might have seen a poster in passing. All this is really a shame, because, truth be told, this is a good and enjoyable film. Yes, it has a few issues and is likely to turn some people off, but I would definitely watch it again. Check it out sometime!
3 3/4 out of 5 stars