(director/writer: Richard Linklater; screenwriter: Skip Hollandsworth; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Sandra Adair; music: Graham Reynolds; cast: Jack Black (Bernie Tiede), Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie Nugent), Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck), Brady Coleman (Scrappy Holmes), Richard Robichaux (Lloyd Hornbuckle), Rick Dial (Don Leggett, funeral director), Brandon Smith (Sheriff Huckabee); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Ginger Sledge/Richard Linklater; Millennium Entertainment; 2011)

“Very funny and poignant true story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Austin-based indie filmmaker Richard Linklater (“A Scanner Darkly”/”Before Sunset”/”Me and Orson Welles“)returns to Texas to film this very funny and poignant true story about a generous popular people person, the thirty-something assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). It tells of the true Christian or con man’s doomed relationship with a wealthy, nasty, elderly widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). They’re from the close-knit religious rural East Texas small-town of Carthage.The slight story, told like a mock documentary, relying on a one-note plot it repeats over and over, is blessed with a great performance by Black, a playful screenplay by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, and direction of the docudrama that makes the most of black comedy. The amusing tale of the rise and fall of the lovable and always cheerful Bernie, who loves dressing up the dead so they look their best when laid to rest, was discovered by Linklater in a1998 Texas Monthly article–“Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”– written by Hollandsworth. It mentions that in the summer of 1997, 40-year-old Bernie Tiede was arrested for the murder the previous year of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a multimillionaire heiress with whom he had been sharing living quarters.

Marjorie is hated by her estranged family (no relative has seen her in the last four years) and by everyone in town, and by her unkind actions as a banker gets more hate when she runs the bank she inherited from hubby by disrespecting the locals and not being helpful in their securing of loans. The isolated widow is befriended by the kind-hearted, effeminate and perhaps true Christian believer Bernie and begins a serious relationship with him, as they take expensive vacations together in spas around the world. But the closer Bernie gets to Marjorie, the more demanding and possessive she becomes. Eventually her tight grip on the mortician begins to wear on him, and while now employed to be her business agent, valet and toy boy, he loses his marbles one day and in a rage shoots his mean-spirited meal ticket in the back four times with a rifle and stuffs her body in her freezer. Not found for nine months, as Bernie tells everyone she had a stroke and is in an out-of-state nursing home. But her suspicious stockbroker (Richard Robichaux) talks the sheriff (Brandon Smith) into getting a search warrant of her home. After the body is recovered, the sheriff gets a tearful confession from Bernie and the shrewd showboating district attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), realizes he can’t get a conviction in Carthage, where folks are willing to forgive the sociable nice guy Bernie, and instead he gets the judge to move the trial to a town fifty miles away. There Bernie is convicted of first degree murder and is given a life sentence.

Linklater takes pot shots at the town for universally loving the murderer Bernie and universally hating the victim, but is not interested in exploring any depths to the psychology of the either gay or straight murderer.

It’s interesting to note, many of the real residents ofCarthage are interviewed during the story and serve as a Greek chorus sharing their similar good feelings about the energetic Bernie. They tell us that he sang in the church choir, acted in the community theater, and the goody-goody ran fairs to support the arts, and when he got his hands on the widow’s money donated it to build a wing for the Methodist church, provided generous loans to local businesses and homeowners who fell behind in mortgage payments, and donated new cars to the needy.

Bernie (2011)