Let me begin this review by stating something that I’m afraid isn’t so obvious, and that is that Jack Black is actually a good actor. Now of course very few people are under the impression that the man isn’t talented. As a comic actor he’s found much success with films like School of Rock, Kung Fu Panda, and Tropic Thunder. As a musician he and partner Kyle Gass have an impressive following with their band Tenacious D. Lately however some of his film projects haven’t shown the range that his early career promised, particularly movies like Gulliver’s Travels. Now, he’s reteamed with School of Rock director Richard Linklater to bring to life a character that, and I hope I’m not jinxing him here, could bring him some attention at awards season.
Black stars as Bernie Tiede, a very happy go lucky mortician and funeral director in the small East Texas town of Carthage. Bernie is an extremely lovable guy, and also seems to be the kind of guy capable of finding something to love in everyone he meets. This ability to love everyone is really put to the test when he does what he can to befriend a lonely widow by the name of Marjorie Nugent. Nugent is played by Shirley MacLaine, and as usual she gives another reliable and entertaining performance. Now Bernie doesn’t approach Marjorie any differently than he has many of the older widows in Carthage. As an indication of just what kind of man Bernie is, we are told by his boss, played by the late Rick Dial, that Bernie would often visit with the widows in town with flowers for weeks after the funerals just to check up on them. With Nugent however, it takes Bernie more than one visit to even be asked in the house. To put it plainly, Nugent has very little use for Bernie’s kindness or the company of anyone for that matter.
Eventually Bernie manages to break Nugent’s steel armor, and before too long the two are joined at the hip. Their very close friendship soon has all of Carthage buzzing about “what’s really going on with these two.” How is it that the most lovable guy in town is now a companion to the most hated woman in town? Some think it’s sexual, some think he’s being an opportunist, and some, can’t be swayed from the notion that Bernie just knew in his heart that Nugent was a lonely old woman who was in dire need of a friend. Things start out small enough with lunches, concerts, and community events, but then the two are traveling the world together and eventually Bernie becomes Nugent’s housekeeper and personal assistant. After a while Bernie comes to see that side of Nugent that had so many crossing the street to avoid her. She demands more of his time than he’d like to give and she even manages to find little ways of annoying him for her own pleasure. Eventually something cracks in Bernie, and Nugent ends up dead and packed away in a freezer in the garage.
For nine months Nugent’s absence goes relatively unnoticed, but then her remains are discovered and Bernie confesses to killing her. Before all this happens we meet Carthage district attorney Danny Buck, played by Matthew McConaughey. We know from an earlier interview with Buck that he is a hardliner when it comes to prosecuting the law. After he gets an earful from some of the residence in town concerning the murder he realizes no jury in Carthage will allow a punishment that expresses the full extent of the law. This fact only seems to drive Buck’s desire to do what he can to get Bernie a life sentence. McConaughey plays up Buck’s small town self righteous indignation very well without making it seem like satire.
Linklater and screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth construct the film in a very unique way, mixing in interviews with actual residence of Carthage and interviews with actors playing actual residence of Carthage. I defy you to know the difference. These interviews actually provide some of the films biggest laughs. This however is not a broad comedy with site gags and set up situations. It is like the Coens masterpiece Fargo, a comedy of manners. The laughs come from subtle behavior, and regional observations, like in the way some of the jurors grasp Big Gulps as they listen to the evidence. As good as the writing and direction are on this film, its success clearly belongs to Black. His performance here is a balancing act of comedy and drama. Black has never been one to shy away from going broad, but here he knows just how to keep Bernie grounded in the real world. His performance is made even more impressive by the fact that the film is based on actual events. While not your usual summer release, I really enjoyed this film and its take on the most beloved murderer any small town has ever known.