We so often see Jack Black going “big” in broad comic performances that it’s easy to forget that this is an actor capable of great subtlety.
Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than he does in Bernie, Richard Linklater’s based-on-fact study of a small-town eccentric now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.
Bernie Tiede (Black) is a church-going, giving, glad-handing funeral director who came to tiny Carthage, Texas, in the late 1980s and quickly became one of the town’s most visible and beloved citizens.
The sort of guy who goes the extra mile for his fellows, Bernie befriends local dowager and recent widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich witch so disagreeable that one local describes her as capable of “ripping you a two-bedroom, double-wide ***.”
Soon they’re the town’s odd couple. Bernie becomes Marjorie’s closest (only) friend; they travel the world together. He runs her errands. She buys him clothes. He becomes her confidant. She gives Bernie her power of attorney.
But there are cracks in the relationship. Majorie becomes ever more angry and demanding. Poor Bernie can barely find an hour to devote to the local amateur theater he so loves. The stress builds.
And then Marjorie vanishes.
All this is told by writer/director Linklater (Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) in a most intriguing and entertaining manner. Bernie is narrated by the citizens of Carthage, who regale us with on-camera stories, wise-acre comments, pithy observations, rumors, and such a big dose of Texas ethos that you can’t separate the professional actors from the everyday folk.
This black comedy is also peppered with references to other movies, especially Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (gay man coexists with gullible small town rednecks).
And Black’s performance holds it all together.
There are moments here when Black seems to be channeling Grady Sutton, the plump “sissy” actor of Hollywood’s Golden Era. But this performance is no caricature. Bernie’s effeminacy is just below the surface and so carefully tamped down that no one in town is sure of his sexuality.
Moreover, we find ourselves in the same boat as Carthage’s citizens. Gay or not, we like this guy.
An ambitious district attorney (Matthew McConaughey, who seems always to give his best performances for fellow Texan Linklater) attempts to paint Bernie Tiede as a cold-blooded, social-climbing, calculating con artist. But such is the power of Bernie’s persona that we see him more as a victim than a perpetrator, as a do-gooder burnt by his own altruism.
Against the odds, Bernie found an audience and played in local theaters for several months. Years from now it will be celebrated as one of Black’s finest moments.
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About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.