Sometimes those true stories that are so strange and intriguing and really deserve the movie treatment are either embellished to the point of non recognition or played so straight its hard to believe we aren't watching a "48 Hours Mystery" episode. What is appealing about Bernie though is the way it walks this line so carefully. Sure, it sways pretty heavily in either direction from time to time but it always regains its balance and in the end delivers a dark comedy that is nothing short of entertaining and completely unbelievable. The unbelievable factor comes squarely from the personification of our title character. He is such a strange and mysterious being. You think you have him figured out and then you learn something else about him, some other aspect of his life and it makes you re-evaluate him completely. In that lead role, Jack Black has given what is one of his finest performances. I have always loved Black and his manic energy despite his many failures as of late. Here, he has calmed himself down and subdued his energy while channeling it into this character that is at times very complex while on the surface remaining a kind of simpleton. He is a gentle man, but someone who clearly has ambitions and motivation and as he becomes the most liked man in a small community in east Texas. While Black delivers on every level he is also backed by a subtle and all too brief performance by Shirley MacLaine and a wonderfully over-the-top turn from Matthew McConaughey. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) surrounds these characters with a Greek chorus of town members and fleshes out his story with the most absurd of commentaries. It is a strikingly odd film that even more strangely becomes as appealing and charming as its main character.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) becomes controlling
of her new found friend Bernie (Jack Black).
The crazy thing about the film, the hook of it, though really is the story and that is a lovely thing. When we first meet Black's Bernie Tiede he has accepted a job as the assistant funeral director in the little town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie quickly becomes a town staple and everyone's favorite person. He is more than just a committed worker at the funeral home, he teaches Sunday school and sings in the church choir. He ran the drama productions in town and he volunteered and would lend a helping hand anywhere he could. It comes as no surprise when Bernie befriends one of the widows of the husbands that has passed away. Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine) is pretty much hated throughout town and has been sued at least once by every member of her family. Marjorie also has a good amount of money to her name and so it works out perfectly that Marjorie can match Bernie's ambition with her finances and Bernie can fulfill Marjorie's desire for a companion. They do in fact become frequent travel buddies and Bernie goes as far as to begin managing her bank accounts, but she pushes him. He becomes more of her servant, waiting on her hand and foot and he is just such of a nice guy that he literally cannot tell her no. Instead of breaking the ties and having to deal with a disheartened friend he kills her. This, I find to be no spoiler because that is not the surprising part about the story. What is indeed surprising about the story is what happens after. The townspeople are glad to be rid of Marjorie and they would rather thank Bernie than condemn him. Bernie doesn't know what to do about what he's done and so he carries on as if nothing happens for nine months and in this time we find it fascinating what we really discover about the character of Bernie.

District Attorney Danny Buck
(Matthew McConaughey) is set
on finding Bernie guilty.
Because this does star Jack Black it might immediately be assumed this is a flat out comedy and this is partly true, but not really. There are funny bits, the commentary by the townspeople in itself is a guaranteed laugh, but there are strong hints of drama here as well. It is more than fitting into these genre lines though, Black makes his character a real human in the way that he captures the restrained madness and conflict that are no doubt hidden below the bubbly surface of Bernie. This becomes more than just a comedy film it is a social commentary on the south, specifically east Texas where the "real south behind the pine curtain" as one character calls it. That was the intrigue of the subject matter for me. It is all very specific, it knows what it is and it wraps you up in the world it documents while never clarifying or forcing its opinions of the title character on the audience. It leaves that up to us and in doing so it leaves just the right amount open while delivering everything we need to know to come to a well educated opinion. I still don't know what I think of Bernie though. The movie itself I loved, but the man is another case entirely. He is an earnest man and it is clear that he is simply a sweet guy who gets himself in to deep to something that his world and the way he works doesn't know how to deal with. It is interesting though that Bernie befriends most of the widows in town in an effort to keep them company and console them after the loss of their husbands. why he chooses Mrs. Nugent to become so involved with raises the question of is their more of a motive there because of her known wealth. Of course, it could be routed back to the fact they find in one another what no one else can offer but even still, what Marjorie can offer that no one else can is the money. Bernie has a large appetite for helping others and he uses Mrs. Nugent's money to do so in most cases. Even after her death he spends and spends. It is made clear that Bernie spent little to nothing on himself but it does show him, multiple times, taking a plane out for a fly and we assume it is his own personal one.

When this comes down to a trail (which is fittingly the finale of the film) McConaughey's cocky DA Danny Buck uses this angle to work the jury in his favor of putting Bernie away in prison. As a Linklater staple McConaughey doesn't come into play really until about mid-way through the film, but when he does he is certainly a force to be reckoned with and he seems the only one that is fascinated with the spell Bernie has seemed to cast over the townspeople. Director Linklater who also wrote the script was present for the actual trial of Bernie Tiede in the 1990's. This is clearly been a labor of love for the director and he paints a portrait of small town southern America in such a honest and pleasant way that this string of tragic events flows seamlessly as a big screen comedy.

Bernie explains how his fellow neighbors can get tax
deductions for what they've personally spent on
equipment and uniforms for work.
Bernie is absolutely in my top 10 films of the year so far as I loved every minute of it. I was first happy to see Black and Linklater reunite after creating a minor classic in School of Rock almost ten years ago and second to see that Black would get the opportunity to portray a character that didn't fit the bill for his standard roles that have caused him more big budget misfires than hits as of late. I literally don't think he has appeared in a quality film since 2008's Tropic Thunder (I'm not counting his voice work in Kung Fu Panda or his extended cameo in The Muppets either). I have always liked the actors personality and willingness to go as far as it takes to pull off a good joke, but Linklater seems to know best how to focus these assets into a character that supports the story rather than a character who's story is struggling to keep up with him. Black plays the odd man with such a soft spoke, southern voice and hint of feminism that raise questions about his sexuality and only add layers to a man fascinating enough on his won without adding in other questions to make us ponder his true motives. Was the real Bernie Tiede simply too nice a guy too break an old lady s heart? Did he just crave friendship and approval so much that he killed to carry on his charitable works? They are such contrasting thoughts it's hard to even narrow down the real source of why such a thing came to be, but it did and in this crazy true story out of east Texas has come a film that re-defines a career and refreshes faith in a storyteller seeing the value of that over-used tagline "based on a true story".  

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