The story of Bernie Tiede feels like the epitome of the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction.” What's impressive about the film based on this true story is how well director Richard Linklater manages to take that strangeness and envelope it with layers of humor, warmth and heart.
The film is based on the “Texas Mont-hly” article written by Skip Hollandsworth (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater). Bernie (Jack Black in a career-best performance) is something of an artist when it comes to mortuary work. The level of care and affection he invests in his work as an assistant funeral director in Carthage borders on obsessive. He seems to truly relish his work, doing everything he can to ensure that each family has a memorable memorial for their loved ones. But he isn't just a mortician, Bernie is something of a community renaissance man, as he'll do everything from direct and act in theatre productions, serve as an amateur financial advisor and even lead the choir at church.
Rumors were rampant that Bernie was gay, but his predilection toward women much older than he seemed to (at least partially) dispel that particular piece of gossip. One woman in particular catches Bernie's eye, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). But it wasn't just the fact that Marjorie was 42 years Bernie's senior that has people whispering, it's that she was one of the coldest, most spiteful and unlikeable people in town. Oh and she also controlled a $10 million fortune. But with all of her immediate family alienated, Marjorie decided to make Bernie the sole heir, turning him into her own personal assistant and traveling companion as they hop around the world.
And that's where the film seems to diverge from its real-world roots. Going by some of the information I've read, there were some who wanted District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson (played by former Longview resident Matthew McConaughey) to throw the book at him, while others all but wanted to throw him a parade. Details like that are always going to be in contention when adapting real life events into a movie, but I think that's what people need to understand here: This is still just a movie.
What's interesting, though, is the direction Linklater takes the presentation as it sort of dances back and forth over the line dividing a documentary and a feature film. Interviews with Carthage residents (many of which are the real deal and not actors) bookend each scene. It's an interesting approach, though I wasn't sure at first if it would actually work as it could have easily muddled things. Then again, it's almost as though Linklater is acknowledging how outlandish parts of the real story are by mixing the real with the re-enacted. Either way, it's a decision that ultimately works as we get some great work from the actors and the locals display as much personality as you would expect and are delightful to watch on-screen.
Shirley MacLaine has something of a thankless role as she's mostly there to be a harpy, but she makes perfect use of one or two very small moments giving a brief but much-needed window into why Marjorie is the way she is. It was McConaughey I was most worried about, though. When he first shows up as Buck Davidson, he didn't feel quite right, almost like he was playing dress up. But as the film goes on he settles in quite nicely and by the time the climactic court scene arrives, McConaughey actually feels just right for, imbuing it with the sort of swagger necessary and more than a couple hilarious mannerisms (wiping his mouth with his tie got a pretty great laugh).
Make no mistake, “Bernie” is a very funny movie. Laugh-out-loud funny. But what Linklater never does is deliver those laughs at the expense of the people and characters on-screen. The residents of Carthage say a lot of funny things, but Linklater is careful to frame things so that we're laughing with them and not at them. There is no place else quite like East Texas (something one of the interviewees admits outright), and Linklater does a good job of preserving the flavor of the region without ever resorting to cheap shots. There will likely be some who disagree with that assessment, but I never felt the film's intention was to do anything other than present Carthage as it is.
Bernie is, unfortunately, still not playing at a theater near you. Not yet, that is. A screening is planned for May 31 at Four Star Cinema in Kilgore with Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth in attendance. We'll have more info on that as it becomes available. In the meantime, you'll have to drive to Magnolia Cinema, 3699 McKinney Ave., in Dallas to catch a screening.
Stewart Smith is the Entertainment Editor for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Contact him at 903-596-6301 or by e-mail at email@example.com.