Susan Granger's review of 'Bernie'
"You don't want to turn grief tragically into comedy," notes funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) in Richard Linklater's weirdly wacky adaptation of a true-crime story that took place in East Texas. But that's exactly what happens when Bernie bumps off his best friend/benefactor, Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). Yet nothing in life is straight-forward or simple, particularly in this quirky black comedy.
In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, no one was more beloved than mild-mannered Bernie Tiede back in 1989, when he first met wealthy, recently widowed Marjorie Nugent, whom everyone, including her estranged family, agreed was a miserable, mean, hateful bitch. Eventually, genial Bernie, a devout Christian, won her trust, becoming her constant companion, traveling around the world as her personal assistant/business manager. Because he was a fey, fastidious bachelor in his 30s, there was speculation that Bernie was gay. But no one really knew -- or cared -- since Bernie was kind and generous to a fault, sharing everything with everyone whose path he crossed.
According to Bernie, Marjorie eventually became so demanding and possessive that he snapped, impulsively shooting her with the `armadillo' gun from the garden and then stashing her body in the freezer. His crime went undetected for nine months until Marjorie's stockbroker became suspicious and alerted her relatives. When questioned, Bernie confessed -- but no one wanted to believe it, forcing determined District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to move the trial 30 miles away to St. Augustine to secure a conviction.
Inspired by a Texas Monthly article, it's subtly yet satirically scripted by journalist Skip Hollandsworth and director Richard Linklater ("Slacker," "Dazed and Confused"), who last joined forces with Jack Black for "School of Rock" (2003). In the best performance of his career, Black plays Bernie with total conviction, as do Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, and a down-home Greek chorus of opinionated Carthage residents, talking right into the camera.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Bernie" is an affectionately endearing 8, concluding with a clip of Black conferring with the real Bernhardt Tiede in prison.