SXSW Review: Bernie

Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine star in a Richard Linklater comedy best described as 'Fargo Light.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


This prequel to Weekend at Bernie’s answers none of the questions I’ve had for the past 23 years!

Actually, Bernie is one of those stranger than fiction true stories, only it’s not that strange. It’s got a good role for Jack Black and a decent one for Shirley MacLaine. It’s amusing enough. Basically it’s a movie old people will think is delightful with a nonthreatening Jack Black and only one bad word.

Bernie Tiede (Black) was a beloved member of the Carthage, TX community. He worked at a funeral home and taught classes on making up the cadavers to look nice, but not too pretty. He would always console the mourning widows and became involved with Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), like financially, though never specifically romantically.

So basically this guy swindles old ladies in a nonsexual PG-13 way. And the film really makes you love him, so it basically takes the town’s perspective. Bernie couldn’t have been scheming for her money. He was so nice. Plus, Marjorie was such a handful, he kind of earned it.

Tiede is a real character for Black. He doesn’t do his eyebrow thing and he puts on a voice that still sounds like Black, but it’s an unnatural intonation so you know it’s a character. MacLaine really milks the part of Marjorie, scowling at the churchgoers, chewing her food vigorously and throwing a tantrum. She’s still got it.

There’s room for wacky humor, and dark humor, and both are mild. I really like Tiede’s gentle etiquette about cadaver makeup and his sensitive way of suggestively selling the higher end caskets. There’s a trial that’s a mild circus, but it’s not like O.J. The idea that Tiede is so well liked it’s hard for a jury to convict him is sort of like Fargo naivety, but Fargo light, like everything is light.

The narrative is interspersed with interview soundbites from actors in character as Carthage natives. Carthageans? Carthagites? Perhaps a remnant of director Richard Linklater’s looser indie sensibilities, but it’s a pretty familiar Hollywood technique too. I mean, When Harry Met Sally has the characters do interviews too. Again he keeps it breezy, never going too far into the sleazy undertones of Tiede’s relationships.

Matthew McConaughey is barely in the movie, which may be a selling point to some. Hey, if doing a few scenes raises enough money to get the movie made, then all right, all right.

It’s not just that the film is about an elderly community that makes me think it’s for old people. Well, maybe that reminded me, but it’s very much the kind of movie that plays on a Sunday afternoon, or let’s be honest, 10:30 a.m., to a packed house. And they chuckle, they don’t get roused or offended and it’s kind of a step up after a rough patch for Black.