I believe that Jack Black is a comic presence best used sparingly. Much like Jon Lovitz, the funny actor is best when he’s used in a smaller role. In films like High Fidelity and Saving Silverman, Jack seemed to wait for the proper moment and just nail an over the top jolly beat. As he has become a leading performer, Black has become too much of a good thing. Envy, Nacho Libre and Shallow Hal were comedies in a very loose sense of the word… not truly funny at all.
The other thing about Jack Black is that he slowly has become a solid actor. In King Kong and Tropic Thunder, he gave a reading that was much more an acting role and not so much his regular shtick. In his latest effort Bernie, Black takes the skills he has honed as an actor and the God-given talents as a comic, and delivers one of the best performances of his career.
The film is structured in a faux documentary style, where a group of town folks give the audience information directly to the camera. Some of the biggest laughs come from this Greek Chorus of people and how they tell their little part of the tale.
The story is of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who is a mortician’s assistant and new member to the Carthage, Texas community. Everybody in town believes that Bernie is gay but they all just accept him because he is such a nice fellow. He does everything he can for everyone in the town and the town appreciates his gentle ways.
The second part of this dramatic triangle is Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a widow many years the senior of Bernie. She is a miserly old woman who is mean to everybody in the town. Every person in Carthage has an opinion of Marjorie and it is not a flattering picture. Bernie believes that Marjorie is a wonderful person underneath and reaches out to her. The two become fast friends and maybe lovers. Eventually, Marjorie begins to take over Bernie’s life, controlling every aspect of his life. One day, Bernie snaps and puts four bullets in her back.
The last leg of the Bernie saga is Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). He is the prosecutor who sees putting Bernie behind bars as a feather in the cap in his prosecution headdress. As Danny goes around town, he begins to realize that everyone in the community loves Bernie so much that he cannot get a guilty verdict. He pushes for a change of venue in order to make sure that Bernie is found guilty. The film ends with the trial.
This is the best performance Jack Black has ever done. He is actually playing an individual, a fully thought out and dimensional persona. There is none of the ‘Hey look, I’m Jack Black playing a wacky character’ but a person with depth and feeling. He gets to show off his singing abilities without all the Tenacious D silliness. He finds all the correct beats in playing both an effeminate male and an East Texas character. While taking on this role, Black never demeans the actual man.
Shirley MacLaine is still a national treasure but is overshadowed by Jack Black time and again. Her Marjorie is one heck of a wicked woman but in the hands of MacLaine, she finds some humanity in the characterization. There are moments of vulnerability combined with moments of cruelty that paint a complex portrait.
The weakest link of the trio of actor is Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson. The performance feels more like a stunt than a role. While he does have down all the mannerisms of being a Texan down to a perfection, the role still feels like a vanity project and not a fully thought out acting job.
The film is written by Skip Hollandsworth, the reporter behind the Texas Monthly article. He knows the material and crafts an unusual screenplay, full of colorful Texas people who seem to populate rural areas. Skip captures both the timbre and resonance of being a Texan while never demeaning the people in the film. It is a very sympathetic offering.
Richard Linklater, the man behind Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, School of Rock and Me and Orson Welles directs the film. He crafts a wonderful tale that could only happen in Texas, telling the story in almost documentary fashion while still crafting a compelling drama. We know the outcome but still follow the path the characters take.
Bernie is a great little dark comedy that goes for some macabre elements on more than one occasion. The best part of the film is that it is true, because a story like this one would be hard to make up. If someone is looking for a different little comedic film, this is one of the best of the year.