Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman
The insular nature of small towns allows for bad interactions to fester into hatred and small acts of kindness to manifest into blind admiration. Something that plagues this small Texas town where the film Bernie takes place. Even with the dark nature of the crime involved, the film expertly crafts such a funny and enjoyable movie.
Bernie (Jack Black) works as an assistant mortician in Carthage, Texas where he becomes an exemplary community member. He participates in the theater and generally has a good demeanor that endears him to others. He even strikes a friendship with the coldest and most rigid person in the entire community, Margie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). After her sudden disappearance, questions arise after Bernie appears to have all of this cash to spend.
This will probably be said in every review of his but Richard Linklater’s filmography will forever befuddle me with the material he takes on. He always manages to make quality pieces of art but the stretches in genre and tone are incredible. I find it hard to believe that the person who made this film also constructed the immaculate Before Trilogy and Boyhood. What links them all is Linklater’s fascination with philosophical ideas that weaves into all of his features. Nevertheless, what he creates in Bernie is something so absurd that it becomes hilarious through his script and how he captures the people of this small town. A major part of it comes from the casting.
Jack Black is so underappreciated and he really does something special as the titular character. He does nothing but do incredibly kind and helpful deeds for his community but he gives off this weird aura about him. I’m not sure what it was but it all came together when his actions were revealed. Black has such great comedic timing and he makes it work with his odd yet hilarious character. It comes from the pure happiness and kindness he exudes in every waking moment. I’m not sure where he gets it, as his job revolves around being around dead people all day, but he manages to bear a smile and be a model citizen. It pairs incredibly well with Shirley MacLaine’s Margie.
She’s a widow that most of the town despises because she values service over pure kindness. Her resources allow her to have a hefty sum left by her husband and the friendship she has with Bernie shows the potential warming of a cold exterior. A battle of the wills, which Margie ends up winning, as she gets someone as kind as Bernie to crack by her demands. It leads to the inciting incident, which gets the local district attorney, Danny (Matthew McConaughey) to get involved. Once he makes his way to Carthage to investigate what occurred is when the film really hits its stride.
It comes from interviewing the people of the town and the opinions they held for both Bernie and Margie. Danny is stunned and thinks that Bernie has put a spell on them somehow. The interviews with the people of the town shine a light on the attitudes held by folks in such an insular area. Everyone knows someone else’s cousin or friend. Any action done in this small town reverberates and certainly, everyone will hear about it eventually. Even with what Bernie did, the people in the town still adamantly defended it because kindness and investment prevail over anything else. Bernie was nice while Margie gave everyone the stink-eye, which becomes the determining factor on something that objectively occurred but these citizens could care less. These values coming to light is alarming but also incredibly hilarious considering that the events in the film actually happened. Linklater’s adoration for Texas comes through with this film in the way he films the town and the absurd nature of some of its citizens.
Bernie turns into quite the romp and the humor and absurdity it captures should be appreciated. It had some fun performances by some great actors and another instance where reality is much stranger than fiction. Definitely a more minor work by Richard Linklater, but another testament that he can have fun with any subject matter or topic that comes across his desk. He creates a hilariously enjoyable film, which will leave you laughing at everyone and as confused as the district attorney.