Sometimes I hate when I actually like a movie, because I don't like to spoil things and that hamstrings my ability to write about it. In this instance, it's almost impossible to talk about Bernie without spoiling a few things, but it's also an unusual case in that Bernie is based off true events, just not well known. I debated even mentioning that this is based on a true story, because I know several people that weren't aware of that fact and were caught more off guard by what happened in the movie as a result. Anyway, here we go...
Bernie (Jack Black) is a mortician in the small Texas town of Carthage. He's a popular, generous, helpful and well-liked member of the community. As you're being introduced to Bernie and shown slices of his daily life, they intersperse it with interviews of townspeople talking about Bernie. One thing you'll notice is most of these people are talking about these events and people in the past tense, so it's clear that something happened that's yet to be revealed. Also, you'll realize that these people are not actors, but the actual people of Carthage, so even if you didn't know this was based on true events going in, you'll get that feeling as the movie goes on.
Bernie befriends a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine), a woman known for not being a very nice person and was generally hated by everyone. She hasn't spoken to her family in years and some have even attempted to sue her to get at the family fortune. Bernie is able to break through that and they become good friends, going on expensive trips and such. Eventually, Bernie moves in with her and becomes her entire life, but this leads to Bernie feeling smothered. I won't say how this turns, but you'll be surprised at where things go and how it all plays out. It's one of those movies that's hard to believe at times and feels like it had to have been made up, but it's too absurd be anything but real.
While not full of laugh-out-loud moments, there are a few here and there, and the movie maintains a pleasant and humorous tone, despite being about something serious. In many ways this has that quirky, but dark, feeling that you get from Cohen Brothers films. I felt the same way after watching Bernie as I did after seeing Fargo for the first time. I'm not saying this is as good as Fargo, but it evoked a similar feeling.
Director/co-writer Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth do a great job of taking a real event and turning it into something that is somehow funny and enjoyable to watch. While you shouldn't make light of tragedy, the movie doesn't do that in an exploitative way. It's more like they took an unusual story and tried to tell it as authentically as they could while keeping the charm and feel of the people and small town in-tact.
This is a great role for Jack Black; it might be the best of his career. He really makes the character come alive and seem real. It was an inspired casting choice by Linklater, and Black ends up feeling like he was tailor-mode for the role. Shirley MacLaine was great as well, and it's nice to see her back on the big screen in something that's not terrible. Even Matthew McConaughey gives a good performance as the local district attorney. He should stick to playing lawyers (A Time to Kill, The Lincoln Lawyer). It seems like every time I'm about to write the guy off completely, he stars in a movie like this and I have to take him seriously again.
Besides Black, the best parts of the movie are provided by all the non-actors involved. The local townsfolk interviewed deliver some of the funnier moments, but also help add to the realism and charm of the film. They are honest and don't hold back at all with their opinions. You really feel after that you could have been watching a documentary about Carthage.
Bernie is one of the great films that surprises you. I honestly had no idea what to expect going into this and came out thinking this is one of the better movies I've seen this year. It's light, charming and enjoyable, despite essentially being a dark comedy. Many of you won't have a chance to see this in the theater, although it's still playing at The Vine (www.vinecinema.com). I highly recommend checking this out when it comes to DVD/Blu-Ray.
4 (out of 5) Death Stars