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It’s no accident that both on the poster for Bernie and in the film’s opening minutes, Jack Black appears to have been embalmed. Bernie is a mortician, and when we meet him he’s giving a lesson on how to prepare the dead. “Do not overcosmetize!” he tells his students, even though he’s looking creepier than his test corpse. He uses words like “casketed.” Sometimes you need to superglue the eyes shut, he advises, as well as the lips to prevent any teeth from showing: “You cannot have grief tragically becoming comedy.”
In Richard Linklater’s film (co-written by Skip Hollandsworth), grief does beget comedy, but it’s no tragedy. With an early title card announcing, “What You’re Fixin’ to See Is a True Story,” Bernie feels thoroughly like a Coen Brothers production, a tall tale (or is it?) set in the small town of Carthage, Texas, where every resident has a thick drawl and a ready-to-share opinion. And boy, do we hear every one of them. Shot in mockumentary style, the film feels heavier on local color than action, with the first significant chunk focusing on how gosh darn wonderful Bernie is.
Or was—the repeated use of the past tense is important. “He had the ability to make the world seem kind,” an elderly lady notes. He had a “magnetic” personality. He sang in the church choir and shopped voraciously, just so he could donate to others, and visited old widows, just to make sure they weren’t lonely. Basically, he made the sun shine, and could do no wrong. Though all of Carthage scratched its head when Bernie befriended Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), a mean but wealthy widow who wouldn’t give anyone else the time of day. But after a couple of years of constant companionship, people start to notice they haven’t seen Marjorie in a while, even though Bernie keeps spending her money and carrying on as if everything’s fine.
Although Linklater’s telling of the Bernie-Marjorie saga is amusing, it’s undeniably a stretch as a feature—Bernie is good, Bernie may be bad, Bernie is good even if he did something bad! The commentary (from folks with names like “Dubbie Jordan” and “Scrappy Holmes”) threatens to overwhelm the film, but at least it’s funny.
And when the story actually unfolds in real time, it too is a hoot, with Black slipping effortlessly into Bernie’s proper, eager-to-please skin and MacLaine letting her inner bitch out, rolling her eyes during Bible study, recoiling at people’s touch, and generally going crucifyingly nuts when things don’t go Marjorie’s way. Matthew McConaughey also proves he can do more than his hippie-surfer shtick as a terribly coiffed district attorney, putting his drawl to especially good use when his thoroughly redneck character mispronounces “Les Misérables” during a trial.
Throughout, questions about reputation and one’s capacity for good or evil linger. These themes are well-trod by the Coens, whose black comedies often turn on fundamentally decent characters unwittingly getting themselves deeper and deeper into pits of trouble. Are crimes ever justified? Can we be judged by lists of our pros and cons? What seems so farcical digs up some heavy questions if you let it—and end-credits photos of the real Bernie and Marjorie induce a “whoa” moment—but it works as well if you’re satisfied with its silliness. Linklater’s film may remind you of the work of others, but it’s one of his most entertaining yet.