Jack Black is highly amusing in Richard Linklater’s true crime dark comedy Bernie, and yet I spent most of the movie trying to imagine someone else in the part — someone not so obviously doing a silly impersonation.
Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director whose trial for shooting down a rich, elderly widow in 1996 was the basis of Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly piece “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.” The twist is that Bernie — a cheerful, effeminate do-gooder, probably gay, most likely celibate — was far better-liked than the nasty piece of work he killed, apparently after being driven to the breaking point by her relentless broadsides. As in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, the audience is meant to scrutinize the protagonist’s mask of “normalcy” and look for chinks — glimmers of the pathology that we know from the movie’s premise is going to lead to a bad place. Black’s mask, though, stays fixed. He’s glimmerless.
He’s also a bad, or at least distractingly odd, match for a film peopled by genuine residents of East Carthage, Texas, along with actors who do a wonderful job of simulating genuineness (among them, amazingly enough, Matthew McConaughey as the county’s hot-dog D.A.). Talking-head interviews with residents are shot in a faux-documentary style, but damned if I could spot the faux; it’s possible that many of them are speaking off the cuff about the Bernie they actually knew. “He liked to make people smile” is a representative pronouncement, and on the subject of his sexuality these small-town Texas churchgoers are far closer to a live-and-let-live ethos than we New Yorkers have been led to believe.
On the other hand, they regard bank-owning loan-nixer Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) as a mean old shrew. Says one, “People would have shot her for five dollars.” When she vanishes, the rare inquiry on her whereabouts (most of them from the widow’s stockbroker) are easily deflected with the claim that she’s recovering from a series of strokes. Meanwhile, Bernie uses her money to build the church a prayer wing and rescue businesses and individuals from insolvency. People get along fine — in fact, much better — with Mrs. Nugent out of the picture.
Black, wearing a black hair helmet and a thick mustache, is always on the verge of mincing, his gait a stiff waddle, belly first, his voice purged of its lower register. His mode is tenderly solicitous. Despite the townspeoples’ fond memories, I found him insufferable. Is his concern shtick meant to be sincere, or is it just smart business to bring flowers and food to the bereaved in the days after the burial? What are we to make of Bernie taking all the solos in the church choir and casting himself in lead roles in high-school musicals like Guys and Dolls? It’s possible that Linkleter thinks that Bernie is sincere and shrewd, an ingenuously self-manufactured fake, a Good Samaritan version of Christopher Guest’s queeny Corky in Waiting for Guffman. Even on the verge of his arrest, Bernie still spouts platitudes, telling a group of Boy Scouts, “No matter what the scoreboard says, you are a winner in the game of life.”
On its own terms, Bernie is smoothly made and reasonably entertaining, Linklater doing his Austin-based best not to condescend to the locals — at least the East Carthage locals. When the D.A. moves the trial venue out of the (Bernie-friendly) county to a place where East Carthaginians say people have “more tattoos than teeth,” the director can’t resist showing one jury member with a Big Gulp. But McConaughey makes the trial a hoot, his D.A. barely suppressing his glee as he plays on the jury’s antipathy to elites. Watch him cunningly mispronounce the name of the musical that Bernie and Mrs. Nugent saw in New York City as “Lez Miss-ser-ah-bless” so that Bernie can correct him. When the accused speaks French, he’s dead in the water.
MacLaine is as sour and closed-up as her part requires, but with the odd flicker of happiness that surprises Mrs. Nugent and makes her more interesting to watch than the main character. Black’s Bernie is just impenetrable. You have no idea why he ingratiates himself with Mrs. Nugent, whether he sees in her pinched demeanor a lost soul or the motherlode. And his motives matter. What’s the point of doing an ironic reenactment of a strange case that yields so little insight into its title character? You leave hungry for a fuller experience — a work of sympathetic imagination instead of a mildly enjoyable cartoon.