Bernie (2012) is a Happy Film About Life, Death, and Murder

How can a film about a murder be so darn delightful?
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In the opening moments of Richard Linklater’s film Bernie, the title character played by Jack Black says, “You cannot have grief tragically becoming a comedy.”  An ironic statement since that’s all Bernie deals in; the blending of the tragic with the comic.  Bernie is a consistently funny murder story detailing a small Texas town, and the nicest man who ever committed murder.  Remarkably unbelievable, uproariously funny, and with the best performance from Jack Black ever, be sure to seek out this gem of a black comedy.

BernieIn the small Texas town of Carthage, Bernie Tiede (Black) is the nicest assistant funeral director around.  He even befriends the meanest resident of Carthage, Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine); a feat seen as impossible by the rest of the townsfolk who hate her.  As Bernie becomes a confidante to Mrs. Nugent he starts to feel smothered, eventually going on trial for killing her.  But how can the nicest man get a fair trial when everyone’s prepared to acquit him?  That’s left up to D.A. Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) who plans to prosecute Bernie to the fullest extent of the law.

Bernie is not a movie that seeks to tell a conventional police procedural or murder mystery, but shows the intricacies of small-town life.  Several of the real people associated with Bernie Tiede are cast as witnesses who provide running commentary about Bernie, Mrs. Nugent, and life in Carthage.  It lends a documentary feel to a film already blending the comedic with the serious, and leads to some of the funniest one-liners around.  Having lived in a small town for a number of years I found myself nodding continuously to particular statements.  It gives the film a literal eye-witness feeling to the events within the film, and shows the mentality within this town that anyone would have killed Mrs. Nugent (one woman says it could have been done “for five dollars”), but Bernie was the only man brave enough to do so.

The real Bernie Tiede has been described as ambiguous, both personal and professional, and actor Jack Black nails that concept in his portrayal of the character.  In the film’s end credits there’s footage included of Black interviewing the real Tiede himself.  Black loses all his comedic shtick like the funny faces or the physical comedy, and instead portrays this man as living comedy himself.  Sure he sings a lot which is funny, but at several points in the movie the way Black looks or gestures at Marjorie Nugent reveals his slowly unraveling psyche.  When he does up and shoot the woman, Bernie completely breaks down; crying, screaming, and praying to God.  It’s a tour-de-force performance from Black which I’ve never seen.  In that one moment you believe this man wanted her dead, but feels truly upset by what he’s done.  I really hope this segues Black into doing more comedy/drama in the future because he is more than the fat funny guy.

The other actors are just as fantastic creating a true ensemble of actors. MacLaine is hilarious as the angry Mrs. Nugent.  She’s lonely and worthy of pity when she dies, but she certainly isn’t a good person living.  Her chemistry with Black, oddly enough, is codependent and sweet.  McConaughey seems to be getting the most praise as D.A. Danny Buck, and he rounds out the trio of great performances.  If this were a courtroom procedural, Buck would be the hero, and McConaughey plays him as the crusader for justice for Marjorie…but this isn’t that type of movie.  Instead, Buck becomes the ignorant villain who appears jealous of Bernie.  It’s just as duplicitous a role as Black’s, and McConaughey is up to the challenge.

Bernie is a film so bizarre it shouldn’t be true, and it shouldn’t be as concise and fun to watch.  It’s a solid murder mystery, comedy, and drama all rolled into one.  Definitely seek it out on DVD or via Netflix Watch Instantly!

Grade: A-

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