We’ve all heard that truth is stranger than fiction, but rarely do we see that strangeness transmuted into something as entertaining as fiction. With his latest, director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) pulls off that feat. The true tale on which Bernie is based — drawn from a 1998 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth — is not historically “important” or uplifting. It’s the kind of bizarre, local-color-packed yarn that one friend might relate to another on a summer evening over too many beers. But Linklater’s retelling surprises us, and that’s rare at the movies.
The first surprise is that Jack Black gives a subtle, disciplined performance in the title role. Bernie Tiede is an earnest, rotund, obsequious young fellow who takes a job at a funeral home in the small town of Carthage, Texas, and quickly becomes one of its most beloved citizens. Elderly widows adore him, and even good ol’ boys won’t hear a word said against show-tune-singin’, Jesus-lovin’ Bernie.
But no one loves Bernie more than old Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who’s known as both the town’s richest woman and its meanest. MacLaine gives a minimalist but effective performance as a seething misanthrope who clearly fears people more than she loathes them. Bernie tiptoes past her defenses and becomes her protégé — then the sole beneficiary of her will.
Here’s where Linklater and Black spring a second surprise on us. From the opening scene, in which Bernie lectures students on how to prettify a corpse into a semblance of life, we’ve been primed to doubt his own slick, yes-man exterior. But when that exterior cracks, we learn that Bernie isn’t a con artist so much as a pathological people pleaser. And when he just can’t seem to please his benefactor anymore, Bernie ends up doing something quite unpleasant.
While Bernie and Mrs. Nugent both evolve beyond caricature, the townspeople of Carthage remain larger than life — gloriously so, and ironically, because many of them are playing themselves. Linklater takes a docudrama approach to the story, alternating between reenactments and interviews with witnesses to the actual events, who seem all too happy to serve as Greek chorus. Most of the laughs in Bernie come not from Black but from the Carthaginians, such as the raconteur who offers a politically incorrect lecture on Texas geography and describes the jury that pronounces on Bernie as having “more tattoos than teeth.”
One of the stranger-than-fiction twists in Tiede’s story is that the townspeople stood by him in adversity — supported him so adamantly, indeed, that the showboating DA, Danny Buck Davidson (played with relish by Matthew McConaughey), petitioned to relocate his trial.
Reacting to the film, the real-life Davidson has said he doesn’t see anything funny about it: “You can’t make a dark comedy out of a murder.” Perhaps you shouldn’t, but people have been turning ugly realities into campfire stories since the dawn of time. Linklater suggests that the Carthaginians were the ones who first transformed the sordid facts of Tiede’s case into a tale with heroes and villains; it was they who cast Nugent, technically a feeble octogenarian, as “so mean and ornery, she had it coming” (in the words of a waitress played by an actress in the film).
Bernie can’t tell the full story of what happened between Tiede and Nugent, and the script doesn’t delve far into the forces fueling their strange relationship. But, as the story of a town and the oddball who charmed it, Bernie is fully realized — a tall tale that somehow happens to be mostly true.