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Bernie Tiede is the nicest guy you don’t know. An undertaker at the local funeral home (circa Carthage, Texas, 1996), Bernie sends the departed on their way with a delicate hand and a kind demeanour that makes widows swoon and angels cry. The pride of the townsfolk, Bernie is beloved by all, except one: Margery Nugent, 81, millionaire. Recently widowed and locally despised, Bernie is the only one who sees past her cantankerous veneer, and with a little Texas charm, determines to be her friend. And to everyone’s surprise, he succeeds: Margery softens to the soft-spoken mortician, and the two become unlikely soulmates, a mismatched pair joined at the hip and united by a love of lunch dates, spa holidays, and share prices. But Margery is a sullen leopard that can never truly change its spots, and when she inexplicably vanishes, the townsfolk of Carthage refuse to believe – despite overwhelming evidence – that their beloved Bernie may be an unexpected murderer…
Bernie, something of a pet-project for director Richard Linklater, has been bubbling in the back of his mind since the real-life case first made headlines regarding its bizarre circumstances and court proceedings. (The prosecution moved the trial to the neighbouring town of San Augustine because, they alleged, they’d be unable to secure a guilty verdict due to his popularity in Carthage.) The character of Bernie, as played by Jack Black, is a figure seemingly out of literature: an effeminate, odd, relentlessly genteel paean to Southern eccentricity, impossibly well tempered in the face of Margery’s gross social contempt. Bernie doesn’t feel real – he feels like a comic construct, more aligned with Zach Galifianakis’ fey Campaign candidate than a living, breathing person. His actions appear intolerable by any real stretch of the imagination: not for the crime he commits, but for what he endures during his “friendship” with Margery Nugent (played aggressively by Shirley MacLaine’s plastic surgery). In Bernie, truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, because when Bernie does finally snap, he does so with a sense of inevitability. What follows (his guilt is a given from the outset) is the real concern of the film – one it addresses with only partial success.
Linklater is one of Hollywood’s journeyman directors. Like Soderbergh, he found early success in the indie scene before transitioning into the mainstream, where his filmography reads like a mixtape playlist. Unlike Soderbergh, Linklater feels unconformable working within genre. Bad News Bears and Me And Orson Welles suffered from a lack of understanding for tonal clarity and precision, and Bernie suffers from the same unspecific, ambiguous tone. Is this a comedy, a dramedy, a tragicomedy, or something else? Fiction or non-fiction? Earnest or silly? Black is a fine comic actor, and his performance is filled with many embellishments played simply for laughs. This wouldn’t be a problem, except the film isn’t funny: there’s too much genuine pathos to Black’s Bernie, too many moments where he transcends being a figure of simple comic fun. Conversely, the biggest chuckles come from the intercut interviews with Carthage’s allegedly “real” townsfolk, providing an element of mockumentary to the film that makes the scenes between Black and MacClaine feel less like a film and more like an elaborate re-enactment.
While the film attempts to give a psychological depth to the characters that clearly intrigued Linklater and his co-writer, journalist Skip Hollandsworth (from whose factual article the story is based), they become caught in a vacuum of conjecture and tonal leaps. Everyone seems at crossed-purposes: while Black endeavours to replicate a person through meticulous mimicry, the filmmakers continually pull the focus away from the individual to the collective consciousness of the “greater good”. One is left with the feeling that what we’re watching is not the Bernie who existed in real life, but the one his friends and neighbours might like to remember. And perhaps that’s the point.