Appellate Judge Tom Becker thought this was going to be about his favorite Sesame Street characters, Ert and Bernie.
A story so unbelievable…it must be true.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black, Tropic Thunder) is one of the most beloved residents of the small town of Carthage in East Texas. It's easy to see why. Bernie's the assistant director of the local funeral home, and he really puts himself into his work. He's solicitous to the widows, doting on them long after their husbands' funerals; he has a wonderful singing voice that he lends to the services; and he's involved with community, including being the artistic director of the local theater. He's a good listener and has a kind word for everybody—in short, exactly the kind of guy you'd like as a friend, neighbor, or relative.
That Bernie doesn't seem much interested in women his age is barely noted by the locals; the men think he might be a bit "light in the loafers," but since he's such a stand-up guy, everyone in this rural Texas burg tolerates that presumed bit of difference.
Bernie strikes up an unlikely friendship with newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment). It's an unlikely friendship because Marjorie is such an unlikable person. She's also the wealthiest person by far in Carthage. Soon, Bernie is her constant companion; they travel together, she starts attending church, he handles her business and personal affairs, and some of the locals wonder if they aren't "involved."
What the locals don't know is that the mutually beneficial friendship has devolved into a nightmare for Bernie. There's a reason Marjorie is the least liked person in Carthage ("Some folks would have shot her for five dollars," observes a neighbor). She demands more and more of his time, cutting into things he loves, like his job and community activities. She's mean and spiteful, and thinks nothing of berating him.
It would be enough to drive anyone away—or to drive anyone a little crazy, and one night, Bernie does something unthinkable. He commits a dastardly act and covers it up for nine months. When it's found out, the ire of every good citizen of Carthage is raised—though it's not directed where you'd think it would be.
Richard Linklater's Bernie is a gentle comedy in the best sense of the word. Sure, it's a dark story, dealing with murder, deception, and consequences, but Linklater hits just the right notes of quirky without becoming precious or condescending.
In East Texas, the story of Bernie Tiede isn't just a true crime story, it's a local legend. Linklater acknowledges this by having much of the story told as an oral history, with the locals recounting their thoughts and recollections on Bernie, Marjorie, and the crime. That some of these "gossips" (as the film refers to them) are actual Carthage residents who knew Bernie and Marjorie adds a charming authenticity to the film. The characters are folksy without being affected (including the professional actors), and many of their observations are really funny. Casting actual residents is an inspired touch. There's never a sense that Linklater is "looking down" on these people or presenting them as jokes.
We get to know Bernie and Marjorie through what other people say about them; we rarely see them alone and aren't privy to their thoughts. In Marjorie's case, since she's shown as such an unpleasant person, we take it for granted that this is how she really is; in Bernie's case, we're not so sure. As a pillar of the community, self-appointed do-gooder, and someone almost obsessed with doing the right thing, his sincerity is never clear. Obviously, after the terrible event, he's deceptive and self-serving, but even more eager—some might say desperate—to do good for others.
Jack Black offers one of his best performances here, remarkable since Bernie is such an amorphous character. Despite the somewhat stylized nature of the film, Black offers a natural, understated, and physically impressive turn as a guy who actually is too good to be "true." MacLaine is very good as the dour shrew Marjorie—you can completely understand Bernie's frustration with her, but she never sinks to the level of caricature. Matthew McConaughey is very funny as the aggressively good ol' boy District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who's stunned to discover that his open and shut case is being sunk by a bizarre kind of reverse backwoods justice.
But the real star is the town of Carthage, or at least Linklater's vision of it. While we might not get to know Bernie and Marjorie all that well, we get a ton of insight into the small-town culture that's bred them. Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth—who wrote a Texas Monthly article that formed the basis of the film—offer an affectionate portrait of these people; it's easy to understand the rationale behind their feelings that Bernie's crime was just "one of those things."
The disc from Millennium offers decent tech and a smattering of supplements. In addition to a bunch of deleted scenes and instructions for a digital download, there are three short featurettes: "Amazing Grace," which deals mainly with Black; "True Story to Film," which talks about the 14-year journey Linklater and Hollandsworth took to get the film made; and "The Gossips," which features auditions from the locals (many of which are hilarious). It's an OK package, though I would have liked a little more in the supplement department.
Bernie is a little movie that kind of got lost in the shuffle: it played a few festivals, got a limited release, and is now out on a rather unassuming DVD. It's a strange, funny, and affectionate film that deserves an audience. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Millennium Entertainment
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