It would take a quirky director like Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly, School of Rock) to bring this stranger-than-fiction true story to life. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is just the most charming man you’ve ever seen. As an assistant funeral home director, he opens the film by exposing his tricks to presenting the recently deceased, including exquisite amounts of super glue to keep eyelids and lips sealed to keep the jarring presence rigor mortis at bay. But this isn’t a macabre movie despite his occupation. He’s in the business of death, but he enjoys life so much! Whether he’s removing ruined bodies from a car wreck, presiding over a funeral service, or helping the quaint folks of Carthage, Texas with their income taxes, you can’t not love Bernie. So what happens when he murders the town’s wicked witch? The court has to move the trial for even a remote chance to be fair. The folks of Carthage just won’t convict the darling.
A mix of both narrative and documentary-style cutaways with the town’s inhabitants, we learn about how Bernie was hired over the phone for the funeral home position from Arkansas, but it’s not long before he finds himself everywhere in the town’s life. Whether he’s singing, gussying up the funeral home with more crosses and exquisite lighting, or bringing care packages to newly-minted widows, Bernie thrives. But a specter looms over the town in the form of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacClaine), a cold bitch of a woman who hates her family and the people who live in her po’dunk town. In shadow, her face forms that same arrowhead chin and devious smile that the Grinch carried while planning his Christmas heist. When her husband dies, Bernie (in fine tradition) tries to impress her. He’s shooed away initially, but she eventually learns to accept his company. They go on incredible trips and he becomes her confidant and best friend. She signs over all of her finances and eventually power of attorney to him, but Bernie has no ill will. He’s incapable of it. But when she begins to take advantage of his dependence on her, things end violently. Bernie strings the town along for the following nine months by whisking her away to some new convenient destination within his mind and using her brusque demeanor as a perfect vehicle to excuse her erratic behavior while he flies in planes, buys cars for people, and donates to the local church to build a new prayer wing.
The movie is made on the backs of its wonderful performances. There are many legitimate reasons to not watch a Jack Black film, but he’s far from his usual abrasive, rock star self here, instead crooning gospel tunes and marching around with a feminine sway. We don’t know if the child-like Bernie is gay, but he seems to have a thing for the DLOLs (Dear Little Ol’ Ladies) who crowd his workplace week after week. While Jack Black’s turn as Bernie Tiede isn’t as powerful as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s similarly effeminate Truman Capote, I was won over immediately. Matthew McConaughey plays prosecuting attorney Danny Buck, who hams for the camera whenever possible and looks directly inspired by Bruce Boxleitner’s Alan Bradley from the original TRON. The obvious villain of this tragicomic tale, Buck must hold steady in his case against Bernie when they discover Marjorie’s fate. Meanwhile, the town’s folk needle him in every public venue he attends.
“So what if he murdered her?” the folks explain, “she deserved to die!” After watching Bernie, you’ll be on his side, too.