The latest creation from Richard Linklater, the writer/director behind “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” and “Before Sunrise,” is a bit less accessible than those films, but quite entertaining once you get used to it.
“Bernie” is based on the real-life story of Bernie Tiede, a Texas funeral director and pillar of the community who befriended a wealthy widow named Marjorie Nugent, became her companion and assistant, then murdered her. When Tiede was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997, he was portrayed as a gigolo and embezzler who enjoyed expensive travel with Ms. Nugent and embezzled millions from her, presumably murdering her when he was caught.
“Bernie,” however, tells the story from Tiede’s point of view, presenting him as a sympathetic, Christian man who was fond of old people and befriended the mean-tempered Marjorie because she had no friends and was estranged from her family. Early in their relationship, Bernie (Jack Black) brings Marjorie (played with zest by Shirley MacLaine) out of her shell, making her seem a decade younger. As time goes on, however, Marjorie more and more turns her mean, demanding temper on Bernie, who feels trapped in the relationship. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, Bernie reaches the breaking point and kills her.
It’s hard to know what really goes on between two people, and the bare facts of the Bernie Tiede story surely lend themselves to two different narratives, one in which Tiede is a cold-blooded con-artist and killer, and another in which he is a sympathetic soul whose life got taken over by a sociopath. Linklater has stuck with the second narrative, and he does seem to have plenty of corroborating evidence. “Bernie” is sprinkled with testimonials from Carthage, TX townspeople supporting the sympathetic portrayal of Bernie and the portrayal of Marjorie as a mean bitch. Then, too, this article from the Telegraph, written by Marjorie Nugent’s nephew, Joe Rhodes, paints her as perhaps even worse than she looks in the film.
One possible angle to the story that does not get explored in the film is the question of why Marjorie and Bernie’s relationship turns so sour and abusive. One possibility that occurs to me, based on Shirley MacLaine’s performance, is that Marjorie may have had early dementia. Much of her behavior, such as the clinginess and increasingly irrational demands, would be typical of dementia, especially in someone who tends to be demanding and unforgiving by nature. It’s sad to think so, not because it would have changed the ultimate outcome for Marjorie, but because it could have helped Bernie deal with her, had he understood what was going on.
Whatever the truth behind the case, and one suspects that it lies somewhere in between those two narratives, “Bernie” is a charming, if off-kilter black comedy. MacLaine is perfection, and Jack Black manages to stay just this side of parody, lending his version of Bernie Tiede plenty of heart to balance out the grating Texas accent and mincing mannerisms. Matthew McConaughey is delightfully unrecognizable as district attorney Danny Buck. The Carthage townspeople, however, are the real stars of the film. Ever since his first major project, “Slacker,” Richard Linklater has held a reputation for being able to find real-life “characters,” and that is fully on display in “Bernie.” All the best lines come from the townsfolk. Truth is stranger than fiction, and often funnier.
4 stars out of 5