Some “true stories” in the movies take a lot of punching up, and some don’t take much at all. By all accounts, Bernie Tiede really is the kindest, sweetest, warmest, most wonderful human being to shoot a little old lady four times in the back in East Texas. And Bernie may be the funniest movie about a kind, sweet, warm, wonderful man shooting a selfish, bitter, spiteful little old lady in the back.
Bernie (Jack Black) was an assistant funeral director in the small, East Texas town of Carthage, beloved by all. He viewed it as a sort of ministry, both to the dead and to those they left behind. He sang in the Methodist church’s choir, all but ran the community theater, and organized civic improvement drives. Maybe he was gay — yes, he was gay — but nobody really cared; it helped that he never really acted on it. And he was very popular with all the little old ladies in town, especially those widows he comforted after their husbands’ passing.
One widow in particular was a bit of a tough case; Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) was an ornery old lady who was slow to warm to anyone. But Bernie was sweetly, naïvely persistent, and she took to him, mostly because nobody else would put up with her. Her own family tried to sue her, and she had almost no contact with any of them.
Bernie spent more and more time with Marge. He traveled with her as her companion, started taking care of more and more of her affairs, and even pulled back to part-time at the funeral parlor. Marge demanded more and more of his time and energy, always taking and never giving back. Until one day Bernie snapped, shot her in the back, and hid her body for nine months in a freezer.
He spent those nine months covering for her death, yet never actually getting rid of the body. He used his access to her accounts to help out pretty much everyone in town except himself. And when he was finally found out, the prosecuting attorney (Matthew McConaughey) actually had to move for a change of venue in order to have a fair chance of convicting him.
It sounds like I’ve told a lot of the story, and I have, but this is all part of the public record. Marge’s nephew even wrote a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, affirming that this is pretty much how it all went down, and the whole story is based on Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 article for Texas Monthly.
The achievement isn’t in crafting the story; it’s in how Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater have adapted the story into a screenplay, and in how Linklater has rendered that onto the screen. Appropriately to Hollandsworth’s journalistic background, the script plays out almost like a documentary, as a series of interviews with the residents of Carthage, who are as quirky and charming in their ways as Bernie himself is.
Speaking of whom, this is a rare, restrained performance by Black. It may be hard to believe — especially judging from Linklater’s own School of Rock — but he really does have it in him to play less than completely over-the-top. MacLaine does a fine job, too; if Marge’s nephew is to be believed, she nailed her character. But really, neither of them is as great as watching everyone in town chime in because it’s in the chatter between the people living in small towns like these where stories like these are really made.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.