Last weekend I managed to catch Jack Black‘s latest film, Bernie. It’s the story of a locally-beloved mortician from Carthage, Texas named Bernie Tiede who befriends a local and very rich widow, Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). Nugent is known throughout the town as a tyrant of the highest order and she’s despised by virtually everyone—except Bernie who’s determined to find the good side of everyone (as he’s done with virtually everyone in town).
Slowly Marjorie thaws to Bernie and they become best friends (or more) and the two travel the world together but, over time, Marjorie’s controlling demeanor reasserts itself with ever-growing vigor finally driving Bernie to explode in a fit of anger ending with her murder one afternoon.
The amazing part of the story is that Marjorie is so detested by everyone that not only does no one notice her absence, literally for months, but they also don’t seem to have any interest in what happened. However, Marjorie’s deep pockets ensure that some out there want answers and this causes the local district attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey) to push for a full investigation. When the truth finally comes out no one wants Bernie to go to jail for the crime as they’re all absolutely certain that Marjorie drove Bernie to do it.
It all sounds rather fantastical and unbelievable and, in ways, it is but the movie handles this so deftly in its approach that you go right along for the ride. It’s shot in a pseudo-documentary style with lots of actors playing the roles of the local townspeople. Their “interview out-takes” provide much of the fuel that drives the plot forward. In fact, much of the beauty of the film is to be found in these perfectly shot sequences. They’re intriguing, homey, touching and downright hilarious time and again.
All the actors do a fantastic job with the material starting with Jack Black whose portrayal is key in our ability to suspend disbelief. I often don’t like Black who, at times, is just too over-the-top for my tastes. Much like the rest of the film, he’s a bit over it here and yet it just works. This is certainly a role he’s going to be thought of as one of his very best in years to come. McConaughey and the actors playing the smaller roles are all wonderful but the real star of the film is Shirley MacLaine whose portrayal of Marjorie makes everything tick. She gives Marjorie a realness that’s essential. If someone just played her as a despicable character it’d all fall to pieces. Instead we see the bad—and know it’s truly vile—but MacLaine also gives us just enough of the human side so that we can empathize, just enough, to really connect with her.
When the credits finally role you don’t want it to be over. In fact, you do want to stay for several more snippets of interview segments that really put a wonderful cap on the whole experience.