Casting Jack Black in the title role of this 2012 dark comedy turns out to be a masterstroke on the part of director and co-screenwriter Richard Linklater because the real-life character of Bernie Tiede is a comically ambiguous figure not only sexually but more to the point, as a jovial child-man personality beloved by his small Texas town of Carthage while at the same time, strangely insistent in his constant presence in their lives. His pointed need for universal acceptance and unconditional love is what makes Bernie unique as a screen creation. It takes Black's oddly discomfiting screen persona to make the character work as a protagonist of closeted complexity, and in turn, he delivers his most accomplished screen work to date. No stranger to Texas-size guffaws intermingled with wry observations about human nature, the versatile Linklater ("Before Sunrise/Sunset") tells this hard-to-believe, true-crime story with both morbid humor and surprising conviction.
Based on a seriocomic 1998 Texas Monthly article by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, the plot revolves around the unlikely relationship between Bernie, a relentlessly thoughtful assistant funeral director, and Marjorie Nugent, recently widowed and one of the richest women in Carthage. As Bernie becomes indispensable to the fabric of the community with his acts of charitable kindness, his Broadway-style choir solos, and his gentlemanly way of comforting widows in the throes of their grief, the ever-scowling Marjorie is always ready for battle with not only the townsfolk who impede on her life but even her immediate family who can't stand her. Bernie, however, is able to breakthrough her icy veneer with his cheery persistence, and their relationship evolves into an unhealthy codependence to put it mildly. As Marjorie lavishes Bernie with expensive gifts and luxurious vacations, she grows increasingly manipulative in her need to control his every move to meet her every need.
Even Bernie has his limits about what he is willing to do under her iron fist, and needless to say, consequences ensue. For all the dire consequences, Linklater keeps the mood buoyant with the insertion of intertitles to signal what question the movie will address next and with the brief interviews he includes with both actors and true residents of Carthage, all showing their unqualified support of Bernie through his burgeoning troubles. Much like Warren Beatty did in "Reds", Linklater uses them as a cumulative Greek chorus who on one hand, provide some of the film's biggest laughs, and on the other, illustrate just how myopic and oppressive a small town can be in its rumor mongering ways, so much so that Bernie's trial has to be moved fifty miles away in order to allow the light of objectivity to filter into the proceedings. As Bernie, Black finally has a multi-dimensional role that fits him perfectly, and I would be hard pressed to identify anyone else who could have played the character to the seriocomic depths he achieves here.
Well into her seventh decade of movie stardom, Shirley MacLaine is not particularly challenged in portraying Marjorie's sourpuss nature since she's been playing variations on the same role since her turn as the ornery Ouisa in "Steel Magnolias". However, in one key scene, she lets loose all her insecurities that exposes the impenetrable cage in which she has put the increasingly desperate Bernie. Linklater favorite Matthew McConnaughey ("Dazed and Confused") plays the showboating district attorney Danny Buck with gusto, although I wish he was reined in a bit more to provide more of a contrast to the other two principal actors. The movie is a fascinating meld of the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" and Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude" with an unexpected dose of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries. While Linklater does not completely avoid making Carthage the object of ridicule, he has made a black comedy with surprising resonance when all is said and done, especially when you see the real Tiede in an archival video clip at the end.