Now this is a character.
The deeply engrossing true-crime dramedy Bernie is centered on an oddball relationship: that between Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a genuinely sweet, likely gay and deeply religious assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas; and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich and bitter widow who is universally considered to be the town hag. When Bernie pays a visit to Marjorie after her husband’s funeral (as he does with all the widows), an unlikely companionship forms. Yet after a few years of unconventional bliss, Marjorie’s meaner instincts return, pushing Bernie to … well, you’ll have to see the movie or read the Texas Monthly article that first reported the so-strange-it-must-be-true tale.
As nice as Bernie is – and the townsfolk of Carthage (some played by actual townsfolk) testify to the camera that Bernie is the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet – you can’t help but wonder if there is something wrong with the guy. He exudes cheer wherever he goes, whether he’s demonstrating how to trim the nose hair on a corpse, giving a pep talk to little leaguers or belting out one of his much-admired solos in church. Surely he must have a dark side.
Well, Bernie is played by Jack Black, reteaming with his School of Rock director Richard Linklater. And so we know that the potential for some sort of outburst lurks inside. Black wisely leaves it there, instead delivering a lightly comic performance that becomes, as the movie goes on, an unsettling depiction of repression. The better we get to know Bernie – and especially once Marjorie begins to expose the fault lines in his effervescent demeanor – we realize this is a man whose life is built on denial: of his true motives for befriending Marjorie; of his own sexuality; of the cold, hard reality of death, which can’t be brushed away with the removal of unsightly nose hairs.
Of course, we all want to deny that latter element – you know, the whole death thing. It’s probably for this reason that Bernie ultimately registers as a comedy (consider it denial on behalf of the audience). Linklater encourages such a reading in some ways – with bright costumes and broad comic strokes – but he also has an ear for the sadness that’s equally a part of this tale (I could hear it in Bernie’s hymns). “You can’t have grief tragically becoming a comedy,” Bernie tells a class of mortuary students early on, noting the importance of using super glue to secure a serene expression on a corpse’s lips. Thankfully Linklater manages that delicate sort of balance too.