At first blush, “Bernie” looks like the kind of mockumentary perfected by Christopher Guest and his repertory company of improvisers — a finely etched regionalist portrait composed of equal parts affection and venomous satire.
But stay awhile, and “Bernie” turns into something quite different — more gentle, ambiguous, troubling and wistful. Based on the real-life story of Carthage, Texas, funeral director Bernie Tiede, and his co-dependent friendship with a wealthy widow named Marjorie Nugent, “Bernie” unfolds into many equally rich narrative strands: love story, southern Gothic slice-of-life and, finally, tragedy and legal thriller, when Mrs. Nugent’s body turns up one day in her own chest-style freezer.
The film is based on a 1998 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the script with director Richard Linklater.
Linklater has shrewdly cast Jack Black as the eccentric title character, who in real life adored doing community musical theater, and whose showbiz aspirations are perfectly channeled by Black’s soaring tenor. What’s more, Black conveys Bernie’s gentle temperament, which made him beloved by Carthage’s DLOLs (dear little old ladies) and suspected of being gay by just as many townsfolk.
When Bernie takes a special shine to the arrogant Mrs. Nugent (played almost wordlessly by Shirley MacLaine, who delivers her lines either as snake-eyed glances or withering asides), a few cynics believe he’d have to be on the make to put up with her. “Her nose was so high, she’d drown in a rainstorm,” says one observer.
That’s just one of myriad pieces of priceless vernacular delivered in “Bernie,” which has been directed by Linklater as an equal parts loving and bemused valentine to his East Texas roots, and in which he has enlisted several Carthage citizens to deliver talking-head recollections of Bernie’s curious case.
Interspersing “real” people with professional actors, Linklater creates a vivid, gossipy Greek chorus that serves as a kind of collective unreliable narrator — an altogether appropriate stance given the moral gray zone the sweetly confounding Bernie inhabits.
“Bernie” also deserves special mention for bringing Linklater together with McConaughey — not Matthew, who does a struttin’, drawlin’ good job as the cocky district attorney who hounds Bernie into a spectacular murder trial — but Matthew’s mom, Kay, who in the movie and in life can be relied on to deliver a salty, well-aimed zinger.
Linklater has called “Bernie” his “Fargo,” and it’s true that there’s no filmmaker better suited to bring this story to darkly cockeyed life: His love for his native territory keeps the movie from being a condescending caricature, and his distance as an artist allows him to back up just enough to avoid sentimentality. A lot of movies want to have it both ways, but “Bernie” is the rare one that genuinely does, and deserves to.
(At the Barrywoods, Independence, Palace, Studio 30 and Town Center.)‘BERNIE’ * * *
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:44