Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Gary Teague, Tommy G. Kendrick, Larry Jack Dotson, Veronica Orosco, Mona Lee Fultz, Brady Coleman
RunTime: 1 hr 40 mins
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Official Website: http://bernie-the-movie.com/
Opening Day: 12 July 2012
Synopsis: In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, TX, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the town’s most beloved residents. He taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Everyone loved and appreciated Bernie, so it came as no surprise when he befriended Marjorie Nugent, an affluent widow who was as well known for her sour attitude as her fortune. Bernie frequently traveled with Marjorie and even managed her banking affairs. Marjorie quickly became fully dependent on Bernie and his generosity and Bernie struggled to meet her increasing demands. Bernie continued to handle her affairs, and the townspeople went months without seeing Marjorie. The people of Carthage were shocked when it was reported that Marjorie Nugent had been dead for some time, and Bernie Tiede was being charged with the murder.
One of the greatest feats “Bernie” pulls off is that it manages to be uproariously funny without straining for witty punchlines or stooping to cheap gags. The film’s sly humour is laced with a dark undertone. In the opening scene, we see the titular character, played by Jack Black, a mortician in a small town in Texas, giving a lesson on how best to make a dead body look good. He runs through even the tiniest of details, and by the end of this lesson, the corpse he is attending to looks flushed with life. It’s all rather ridiculous - and more than a little macabre – trying so hard to make a dead body look animated, but it’s easy to feel amused by the whole endeavor. This scene perfectly nails the entire tone of “Bernie”.
The film is inspired by an article titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” published in the Texas Monthly back in 1997. It is the true crime story of Bernie Tiede, and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the rich widow whom he murdered. Set in the small town of Carthage in East Texas, the movie is styled as a mockumentary, featuring interviews with people – played by actors, probably, but so convincing they seem almost “real” - in Carthage.
Bernie is something of an oddity in this little town: reserved, notoriously mild-mannered, very affectionate … and single. The single part, coupled with his unabashed love for musical theatre, have set tongues wagging in his town that he may be secretly gay. He displays a bewildering amount of attention towards the older ladies of Carthage, all while neglecting the younger girls who would have readily given him a chance at a date. And then one day, Marjorie Nugent, whose rich oil magnate husband has passed away, employs the services of Bernie to manage the funeral procession.
Mrs Nugent’s quite the grouch, or as the townsfolk prefer to call her, a bitch; when she first appears on screen her face is scrunched up in a wrinkled ball of bitterness, and she deliberately stays a steely arm’s length distance away from everyone else. But Bernie being the gentle, sweet soul that he is, decides to try to ease her pain and win her over, and so he does. They grow close, very close, and even go on holidays together. Mrs. Nugent steadily grows fond – and subsequently attached – to him, and she starts to possessively insist on his unwavering attention. Her demands start suffocating Bernie, and something in him soon snaps. One day in her house, he shoots her four times in the back with a gun.
Their relationship is bound up with ambiguity. Richard Linklater made a wise step here by choosing to leave it to the viewers’ imagination what exactly the nature of the relationship was. Whereas other directors may have chosen to forcefully impose a particular view of Bernie and Mrs Nugent, he prefers a subtler approach. His films have always been distinctly humanistic in their respectful and sensitive treatment of individuals (“Before Sunset”, “Before Sunrise”, “School of Rock”), and “Bernie” is no different. So Bernie’s sexuality is not of importance here, and neither really is the true nature of Bernie’s relationship with Mrs Nugent – you be the judge for both. What matters most is why they did what they did, why they felt the way they felt – basically, the things that make us human.
Black, in what is likely to be his highest career point, lends the character his trademark goofiness and sweetness, but this time he reigns in that anarchic energy to turn in a more somber performance. This is the most restraint I’ve ever seen in Black. Linklater deserves props for the casting, and so much more: he has struck a fine balance between comedy and drama, and created a film which is satirical without being venomous, moving without being exploitative. “Bernie” isn’t merely inspired by a real life story – it is absolutely inspired. Period.
(Hilarious and heartfelt in equal measure)
Review by Raymond Tan