You say Jack Black, I think School of Rock. You say Richard Linklater and, for better or worse, I think Boyhood. So when Linklater’s Bernie begins with a mustachioed Black (playing the title character) speaking with a southern twang so fragile it seems as if a whisper could slip out at any second, I’m intrigued. And I’m also pumped the film started without credits. And I’m also already laughing at the ridiculous of Bernie, an assistant funeral director, teaching a group of students how to prepare a body for burial using copious amounts of super glue.
In short, Bernie tells the true story (based on this article from 1998, full of spoilers) of Bernie Tiede, a middle-aged man known around the small town of Carthage, Texas for his extreme generosity and popularity among “DLOLs”– dear little old ladies. Bernie runs funerals “like a business,” directs and stars in local musicals, helps folks with their tax forms, and checks on widows by bringing them gifts like bubble bath in a container designed to look like a penguin. This is how he meets Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a recent widow known for her hateful attitude and exceptional wealth. As one Carthage local explains it, “There are people in town who would’ve shot her for five dollars.” Surprisingly, Bernie and Marjorie become close, but no one expects anything bizarre or scandalous since Bernie has always been eccentric (and, as one place-card in the film asks, “Is Bernie gay?”). Even when Marjorie is seen less and less in town, no questions are asked.
The film is full of what one could call “golden nuggets”– the casting of townspeople is perfect, and some are even from Carthage. Filmed in a mockumentary style, these locals are full of priceless one-liners, some directly from the aforementioned article, and they represent the quintessential small, American towns where a Boot Scootin’ Western Wear serves as the “answer to Nieman’s.” Black and MacLaine are also great, and MacLaine dressed as Cleopatra is a sight not to be missed. Pre-Mud, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street, etc (read: pre-percieved-as-talented) Matthew McConaughey is listed third in the credits, as stand-out District Attorney Danny Buck who shows up half an hour into the film. He uses a “Wheel of Misfortune” to determine which drug dealers to find next, so you know he’s a keeper. In addition to a stellar cast, Bernie is filmed powerfully with aerial views and unique angles, and the set design is a punchline itself. Marjorie’s house has full animals on the wall, for goodness sake.
Once Bernie jumps forward two years it feels a little slower, though the charm is still there. It’s a bizarre story shot with beautiful simplicity, featuring characters that feel so familiar you find yourself drinking the Carthage Kool-Aid. And it’s delicious.