3 out of 4 stars
It took a while, but comic actor Jack Black has finally proven he can do something on screen beyond doling out canned and annoying shtick. In a manner similar to Jim Carrey, Steve Martin and Adam Sandler before him, Black decided to take a stab at serious drama and like those other guys, he's actually pretty good at it.
In this fact-based film Black plays Bernie Tiede, a gay mortician living in the east Texas town of Carthage who befriends crotchety old widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Because she's filthy rich and ultra-demanding and he relishes the high life, he becomes her lap dog. A man of immense good will with an almost insatiable need for the approval of others, Bernie is also a wanna-be aristocrat and delusional socialite who, through Marjorie, is able to see some of his flamboyant wishes come to life. In the process, he finds himself becoming an unwitting and asexual "kept" man.
Directed and co-written by native Texan Richard Linklater, "Bernie" is a pitch-black comedy that doesn't mock or insult its subjects, but rather celebrates them with a kind of freak show awe and reverence. Linklater intersperses the narrative with first-person testimonials from the local town-folk who wax willingly and rhapsodically about Bernie and Marjorie in tones that range from downright fawning to pointedly skewering.
All of them adore Bernie's love of mankind and most decry Marjorie, yet there isn't anything close to a universal opinion regarding their oddball relationship. Everyone has a strong opinion but none of them seem to want to pass final judgment. They recognize the huge grey area and, through Linklater's unbiased lens, so will you.
This is one of those true-life crime stories that place the viewer in an untenable position. Someone commits a crime without the apparent malice of forethought but with just enough passion to raise eyebrows. Something nasty happens to a bad person, but it's unlikely that you'll feel bad about it. This provides all of the fun; although "fun" here might not be the ideal word.
As he has done in almost all of his previous roles, Black sings and dances quite a bit, which are two things he always does well. For those who recognize Black as the front-man for the two-man group "Tenacious D," this doesn't come as much of a surprise. If the real Bernie didn't also have a penchant for performing, this character trait would have come off as forced and showy. To Black's credit, he avoids irony and plays it straight the entire time. For such a natural ham, this must have felt particularly restraining and makes his performance here all the more impressive.
A regular scene-stealer, Black was also wise enough to recognize he was sharing the screen with one of the most talented cinematic thieves of all-time and let MacLaine command the spotlight. Considering her character is mostly silent throughout and relies mostly on non-verbal communication, MacLaine is one of the few living actresses who could have pulled this role off with conviction. If you saw MacLaine in "Guarding Tess," you'll have an idea of her character's attitude here and the minimalist style she uses to give it real bite.
Not showing up until well into the second act, frequent Linklater collaborator Matthew McConaughey as backwoods district attorney Danny Buck is better than usual though he still brings with him some of his more annoying gestures and ticks. But when in the company of the locals, McConaughey is afforded the best opportunity he's had in years to prove he can really act.
A great many people (native Texans in particular) are going to find "Bernie" distasteful and not the least bit funny. It portrays a sad and pathetic scenario with humor and sarcasm and some folks simply don't appreciate that kind of uneasy mix. But there are situations in movies -- however grave they might be -- where humor is the only choice that will adequately suit the material. "Bernie" is one such example. (Millennium)